When Wetter Isn’t Better: The Unhealthy Truth About Vaginal Lubricant


Vaginal dryness sounds like an ‘old lady’ topic. But hold that story line!

While vaginal dryness does increase as we age, with up to 44% of women between the ages of 40 and 59 experiencing vaginal dryness as a result of hormonal changes, and 70% after age 60 for the same reason, nearly 20% of younger women (as young as 18 years old!) experience vaginal dryness, particularly during sex (more on why in an article to come soon) and long before menopause takes place. There are also increasing numbers of women experiencing menopause at younger ages due to hormonal issues and even what’s called surgical menopause due to hysterectomy (Lena Dunham being a case in point due to relentless endometriosis pain), leading more and more younger women to struggle with this problem.

As for old ladies – well, let’s just take a second on that one. Because it’s important. Women are having sex at every age. And 70 is the new hot: check out Dame Helen Mirren for a redefinition of what age even means! Studies now show that sex just keeps getting better as we get into our 50s and beyond. Women of all ages are using lube to make sex more fun or more comfortable (and that includes not just sex with other people, but with toys). Let’s just talk about Grace and Frankie going into the vibrator business.

I think we’d all agree – wetter is better for comfort, pleasure, and vaginal health. So learning how to keep things juicy is something we all need to know how to do – at every age.

Which leads me to today’s topic…

The Hidden Risks of  Vaginal Lubes

Somehow, while we’re being more careful about what we put in our bodies (as in foods, medications), and on our bodies (as in cosmetics, for example) lube is just one of those products most women seem to take for granted as safe. After all, it’s regulated and has been used forever, so it must be safe, right? But here’s the truth that even your gynecologist probably has no idea about: actually, the FDA does not regulate all of the ingredients in lubricants.

We’ve also been sold a bill of goods on the safety of vaginal lubes, ladies!

Check this out: Vaginal lube safety is major international public health issue that most of us never heard about. What’s the concern? Most of the lubes women are using, from New York to Timbuktu, are damaging to our vaginal ecology – and our overall health. The majority contain glycerin, petrochemicals, and parabens, which have all been recognized by the World Health Organization, and other important public health groups and researchers, as posing serious health risks to women, our partners, and even potentially to our future children. 

Let me break this down: Lubes increase your risk of contracting vaginal infections and worse. Stimulating vaginal lubes (think KY-Heat) increase herpes transmission to women by NINE times! Okay, so avoid the stimulating lubes, simple – right? Not so fast: Even regular plain lubricant increases Bacterial vaginosis (BV) by at least 13 percent. BV, which affects 2 in 5 women, can cause some serious problems – and it’s not always symptomatic. It can be hanging out in your vagina undetected, increasing your health risks. Eighty-four percent of women don’t know we have it. It increases risk of miscarriage and preterm labor and astonishingly, having BV increases your risk of contracting other vaginal infections, including HIV, by 60 percent.  Johns Hopkins researcher Richard Cone, who has studied the ingredients in common lubes like K-Y Warming jelly (his research showed us the increased  risk of herpes transmission), told Chemical & Engineering News that, based on his own research “virtually all…lubricants need to be reformulated” for women’s safety.

 

There are 4 primary ways the majority of lubes on the market disrupt vaginal health.  

  1. Drying out vaginal tissue. What? Aren’t they supposed to add moisture? Well, yes, they are. And they do. For that hot minute. But most lubes contain ingredients like glycerin that pull moisture out of vaginal tissue, ultimately leaving it dry and damaged, particularly with regular use. Damaged tissue is much more susceptible to vaginal infections and to facilitating the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, which is one of the main reasons lubes are a personal and public health issue. As mentioned above, BV, herpes, and HIV are some of the infections we risk contracting as a direct result of lube use. Conventional lube also poses risks for sex partners, too: They increase the risk of passing STIs onto partner(s) by 30 percent!
  2. Changes in vaginal pH. Vaginal infections, including BV, yeast, and others occur when the normal balance of good bacteria in the vagina is disrupted and replaced with an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, which can happen because of pH changes in the vagina. Most lubricants on the market today have pH levels incompatible with women’s bodies. Changes in vaginal pH can also interfere with your fertility.
  3. Microbial mayhem. The glycerin in most lubes not only damages the vagina’s sensitive tissue, it feeds yeast the same way sugar does. So exposure to glycerin through lube ramps up your risk for yeast infections. Studies also suggest that the ingredients in most commercial lubes kill the beneficial Lactobacillus bacteria – and Lactobacillus is the queen of your vaginal ecology! The lactobacillus-killing ingredient in most lubes is likely chlorhexidine (an antibacterial chemical), notes researcher Charlene Dezzutti.  
  4. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Vaginal tissue is highly absorptive (as are anal and rectal tissue). What we put in the vagina (etc.) not only has a local impact, but also a global one in your body. The parabens and petrochemicals in most lubes act as EDCs. When absorbed through the vagina, they enter our system and mimic estrogen. Parabens have been found to increase the risk of hormonal problems including, fertility, fibroids, endometriosis, and breast cancer. Furthermore, EDCs accumulate in your body and pose the risk of birth defects to babies from exposure during pregnancy. Even if you’re trying to prevent pregnancy now, it’s something to think about for later! And if you’re concerned about breast cancer risk, choosing a safer lube is a simple step you can take toward prevention.

So What’s a Gal To Do?

First and importantly, which I’ll discuss more in a separate article, it’s important to figure out why you’re experiencing dryness – it can be due to hormonal changes (especially declining or low estrogen), body products you’re using (irritating soaps or bath products, for example), diet (especially not getting enough good quality essential fatty acids), autoimmune disease (for example Sjogren’s syndrome), lack of enough foreplay and therefore lubrication, or, and this is a tough one, sometimes your sex partner just might not be turning you on (if you want to stay in that relationship, fantasy images and other options can help).

There are also lube alternatives. You can try other oils for use generally or during sex. I recommend organic coconut oil or almond oil, or products containing a blend of these and aloe vera gel, which is slippery and soothing. There are occasional downsides. Coconut oil, for example, might have some mild antimicrobial activity, so some women may experience yeast infection – if this happens it’s not the best choice for you. And oils can stain bedding and clothes. These oils can break down latex condoms rendering them non-protective – so they are not an alternative for safe sex or pregnancy protection with condoms.

For use with condoms, in my medical practice I recommend a brand called Sustain*. Their lube is:

  • Certified organic
  • Free of petroleum, glycerin, parabens, silicone, dyes & harsh ingredients
  • 100% vegan and gluten-free
  • Not tested on animals
  • Latex and polyisoprene compatible
  • Safe for toys and throughout pregnancy

It’s also a Fair Trade company which means no child labor and free education, health care and housing is available to every rubber tapper. And it was created by a woman, a millennial who got the need for better products for her friends of all ages.

Having a happy, healthy, and safe vagina is every woman’s right. Want to know more about vaginal dryness? Please post your questions in the comments below.

 

* When Sustain  first got started several years ago, I did a press conference as a one-time paid medical consultant by Sustain ($1000). However, I do not receive any money from Sustain, I do not do any paid endorsement or advertising for the company and have no ongoing financial relationship with Sustain, and believe in the company simply because I believe it to be a safer product for women.

Brotman, RM, et al. “Rapid fluctuation of the vaginal microbiota measured by Gram stain analysis.” Sexually Transmitted Infections, August 2010, doi: 10.1136/sti.2009.040592.

Damme, Lut Van, et al. “Effectiveness of COL-1492, a Nonoxynol-9 Vaginal Gel, on HIV-1 Transmission in Female Sex Workers: a Randomised Controlled Trial.” The Lancet, vol. 360, no. 9338, 2002, pp. 971–977.

Dezzutti, Charlene S., et al. “Is Wetter Better? An Evaluation of Over-the-Counter Personal Lubricants for Safety and Anti-HIV-1 Activity.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 7 Nov. 2012.

Fuchs, et al. “Hyperosmolar Sexual Lubricant Causes Epithelial Damage in the Distal Colon: Potential Implication for HIV Transmission | The Journal of Infectious Diseases | Oxford Academic.” Oxford University Press, 1 Mar. 2007.

Gorbach, Pamina M., et al. “The Slippery Slope: Lubricant Use and Rectal Sexually Transmitted Infections: A Newly Identified Risk.” Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 1 Jan. 2012,

Moench, Thomas R, et al. “Microbicide Excipients Can Greatly Increase Susceptibility to Genital Herpes Transmission in the Mouse.” BMC Infectious Diseases, BioMed Central, 18 Nov. 2010.

Nicole, Wendee. “A Question for Women’s Health: Chemicals in Feminine Hygiene Products and Personal Lubricants.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 122, no. 3, 2014.

WHO, FHI, UNFPA. Use and procurement of additional lubricants for male and female condoms. 2012. http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/rtis/rhr12_33/en/

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Bonnie

Aviva, Great article, this is what I talk about all the time. Women are putting toxic chemicals on their bodies on one of the most sensitive parts of their bodies and when you put it on your body, it goes right into your body. In my practice I've found that women need a choice, if they are using condoms, then yes they need to have a water based product, but the feedback I get from women is that they find that the water based products don't necessarily create the moisture on or in their bodies. I use and refer 2 products, Sex Butter and Boudoir Butter that are all organic and oil based. Bonnie

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Anonymous

Organic Coconut Oil, we've been using it for years.

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Laurie

I have found that taking Chaste Tree Berry tincture anywhere from 1-3×/day has been helping me. I am not very consistent in taking it (busy homeschool mom), but my husband has exclaimed "Whatever you're taking, keep taking it!" I have noticed more comfort too. So just another easy and not too pricey solution to this uncomfortable problem.

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Daniela

Swiss pharma companies have been pushing a product that amounts to lube for birth (marketed as “baby slips put of the birth canal more quickly due to less friction”) in Eastern Europe for a while now. Reading this puts them in a whole new light and instead of just being a scam they are also potentially dangerous. I have compared the ingredient lists of these pharma products (that are sold under several brand names including Dianatal) to several types of drug store lube and they are basically the same, except for the drastic price difference.

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