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Water-based lube: not a "neutral" choice

Photo by Dewet Willemse on Unsplash
Photo by Dewet Willemse on Unsplash

Because good ol' H2O is normally the main ingredient in water-based lubricants, they may seem like a fairly "neutral" and harmless choice. The thing about this type of lube is that it is by no means a single product.

Once you realize how vast the world of water-based lube actually is, it can feel pretty overwhelming to navigate. So let’s start with why you might want to use a water-based lube in the first place.

The upside of water-based lube

Besides their wide availability, one big advantage of water-based lubes is that they're compatible with all toys and safer sex barriers. They're also generally less expensive than their quality silicone- and oil-based counterparts, plus they wash up easily and won’t stain the sheets. 

And then, of course, some people just really like the feel of their favourite water-based lube.

The downside of water-based lube

Just because water-based lube is the most popular kid on the block, doesn’t mean it’s everybody’s friend. It’s widely acknowledged that water-based lube doesn't last very long, often tastes bad, and can be pretty sticky.

Lots of people consider these tradeoffs to be reasonable (if unfortunate) given water-based lube's advantages. But people who experience more serious negative consequences after using water-based lube - like yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis or UTIs - aren't as willing to look the other way.

One of the biggest concerns with water-based lubes is that, by nature of their water content, they interact with the pH and concentration levels (a.k.a osmolality) of the vagina or rectum. And since most water-based lubricants aren’t carefully calibrated to match these areas, they can cause all kinds of problems.   

Another issue with water-based lubes is that, because they contain lots of stuff, it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the ingredient(s) causing irritation or infection. Of course, there are the usual suspects (I’m looking at you, Glycerin! And you, Propylene Glycol!!), but then people can have allergies or sensitivities to all kinds of things.

Luckily, switching to a silicone-based lube, or a more body-friendly water-based option, can quickly resolve many people’s issues.

Water-based lube shopping guide

Here are my tips when searching for a water-based lube that’s right for you:

1. Touch, Smell & Taste

If you’re shopping in-person, good sex shops normally have a “tester” for every lube they sell. Dab a little on your finger and see what it feels, smells, and tastes like. If you're shopping online, both brand and shop websites should offer some description of these parameters.

2. Consistency

Do you want a thinner or a thicker lube? Thinner lubes are slick and silky-feeling, though very thin consistencies can be a bit runny. Thicker lubes have a gel-like texture, stay in place well and tend to last longer. The latter are generally recommended for using with toys or any type of anal play. 

3. Ingredients

The first two ingredients listed normally make up the bulk of a lube, with all others in much smaller amounts. If you want to get better acquainted with various lube ingredients, check out this comprehensive ingredient glossary by Exsens. Beware of lubes that have an inordinately long list of incomprehensible ingredients or that don’t list them all.

4. Price

Because of mass production economics, lubes made by smaller companies are often a bit pricier than those from big brands. That said, more companies these days (big and small) are making quality lubes for any budget. Keep in mind that the price per ml usually decreases with bigger quantities. So once you’ve found a lube you like, buying the larger bottle will normally save you a few bucks. 

5. pH

Using a lube that matches your ideal pH range will help prevent irritation and infection. For vaginas, the optimal pH is usually between 3.8-4.5, except for neo-vaginas, which is more in the range of 5-7. For folks who are trying to conceive, the pH of lube should match that of semen, which is between 7-8. Meanwhile, bums also usually have a pH around 7-8.

6. Osmolality

This refers to how densely packed a lube is with ingredients other than water, and is measured in milliosmoles per kilogram (mOsm/kg). If a lube is too concentrated, it can draw moisture from mucosal cells, damaging the lining of the vagina or rectum, which in turn can lead to infection. Ideally, a lube’s osmolality shouldn’t exceed 380 mOsm/Kg. Check out my post about how infection is connected to lube concentration levels

7. Manufacturer

Look out for companies that specialize in a smaller range of products, since they often provide more personalized and knowledgeable customer service. Bigger companies sometimes offer 1 or 2 organic, glycerin-free or "pH balanced" options (to cash in on these markets), but then continue to produce an array of pretty awful products. Not cool.


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