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Oil-based lube: the conversation continues

Photo by Malvestida on Unsplash
Photo by Malvestida on Unsplash

Oil-based lube is a divisive subject: while more people these days are talking about how great it is, others strongly caution against it. 

So, why is oil-based lube so contentious? As with most controversies, it’s worth delving into the nuances of the conversation.

Oil-based lube: Safer sex don’ts

Before we get into the different types of oil-based lubricants, it’s important to remember that ALL oil-based lube weakens any safer sex barrier (e.g. condoms, dental dams, and gloves) made of latex or polyisoprene , causing these barriers to break.

Oil can also be hard to wash off and can hang around inside the body for a while, so if you use an oil-based lube (alone or with a partner), and then afterwards have sex using a latex or polyisoprene barrier, it could easily get damaged from the oil that’s still there.

Oil-based lube can damage latex or rubber sex toys, too. So make sure you know what your toys are made of. A good rule of thumb here is to avoid using oils on porous toys.

Oil-based lube: Safer sex can-dos

The good news is that not all safer sex barriers are off-limits for oil-based lube. There are a few brands of condoms, dental dams, and gloves that are made of either polyurethane or nitrile, both of which are safe to use with oils. AT-10, a synthetic polyethylene resin used by the brand “Unique”, is another oil-compatible alternative to latex.

As for sex toys, you can usually use oil-based lubes with non-porous toys, such as those made from 100% unadulterated silicone, glass, steel, aluminum, ceramic and stone. Just make sure your toy isn’t a blended material that actually contains latex (a lot of cheaper PVC or “jelly” toys use latex, as do some blended silicone toys.)

Risks of oil-based lube

You're likely to get different versions of the risks involved in using oil-based lubes depending on the source of your information. Here's a quick summary of the common evidence-based concerns:

But before we paint all oil-based lubes with the same unsexy brush, let’s consider the different types and their possible uses and advantages.

Two basic types

People who claim that oil-based lubes are bad often talk about them as a single category to avoid entirely. But oil-based lubes actually fall into 2 basic types, and there are some significant differences between the two categories.

1) Petroleum-based:

One of the most common petroleum-based products to be used as a sex lubricant is Vaseline. While there are some obvious pros – it’s long-lasting, cheap, and readily available there are some pretty big issues with it, too.

Remember, good lube science is nearly non-existent. So the same small studies get tossed around as evidence of things, but the narrow scope of those studies means that nothing super conclusive has really been established.

Still, this one study that was done about the relationship between oil-based lubes and vaginal infections showed that cis women who used Vaseline or other conventional oils were much more likely to have recurring bouts of bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections.

These findings - along with a bunch of anecdotal evidence I’ve heard over the years - suggest that if you’re using lube vaginally, you might want to steer clear of petroleum-based lubes.

There doesn’t seem to be the same degree of concern for using Vaseline or other petroleum-based oils anally, although if your butt is more sensitive, you might also experience bacterial imbalances and subsequent infections. Meanwhile, these oils are especially popular for hand-jobs, even though they’re notoriously difficult to wash off the skin (and will likely stain the sheets!).

2) Plant-based:

Natural plant-based oils are, for many people, a whole different story. I’ve spoken to loads of people who swear by coconut oil for pretty much everything, including sex - and for others, it’s grapeseed, sunflower, apricot, avocado, or almond oil (just to name a few). These plant-based oils are also often preferred for genital massage, because of their excellent staying power and sensual feel.

Some plant oils are particularly soothing and even nourishing for the body’s tissues, adding to their appeal. They also sometimes have natural anti-bacterial or anti-fungal properties that may help counteract certain infections - but, on the flip side, this could result in infection by messing with the body's bacterial balance. Infections can also happen if these oils get contaminated.

It’s difficult to draw direct correlations between these oils and rates of infection given the lack of reliable scientific evidence. Based on anecdotal accounts, it seems that some plant-based oils are better tolerated than others, but that this ultimately varies quite a bit from person to person.

Because of the risk of contamination and oxidation, household plant oils, like the ones you use to cook with, aren’t generally recommended as sexual lubricants. These oils could contain toxic or inflammatory chemicals as a result of the quality of the oils themselves or improper handling and storage, including exposure to light, either in your kitchen or before they got there.

Luckily, there are some particularly great brands of natural oil-based lubes that are made specifically for sex and formulated with high-quality oils. My favourites are The Butters, Sliquid Soul, and Yes OB Oil-based. I also find the consistency and smell of these products particularly nice compared to regular kitchen-variety oils.

The slippery truth

If you’re looking for a single answer to the oil-based lube debate, you’re unfortunately not gonna find one! There’s a lot of info out there, much of it lacking nuance given the many types of oils and their different properties and use cases. And then there’s the glaring absence of thorough and updated scientific research.

As with anything lube-related, I think the best practice is to arm yourself with some reliable information, try a few things out, see what works for you and what doesn’t, and – if necessary – make a spreadsheet :)

But wait... the conversation's not over yet! I chatted some more about oil-based lube with Yaniv from Berlin's Other Nature Collective. See what they had to say here!!


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