What’s In Your Lube?

Whether it goes in your body or on it, ingredients matter.

The right lube can help you have great sex. The wrong lube can be sticky, cause irritation, and promote infection. We’ve cataloged the ingredients of 420+ lubricants. Together, they contain 400+ ingredients. We haven’t researched them all, but here’s what we know so far.

We Recommend

Aloe Barbadensis

We equate aloe with vitamin water – it adds some slip but still needs plant gums or glycols to be used as a lubricant.

We love aloe-based lubricants because they tend to have gentler formulas and many don’t contain glycols – meaning they have lower osmolality and are less likely to promote irritation or infection.

Because they’re lower-lasting, we generally recommend aloe-based lubricants when all you need is a little added slip or relief from personal dryness.

Aloe has a mildly unpleasant taste and a faint smell. It washes off easily with plain water. We’ve cataloged several aloe formulas that are not safe for polyurethane – always check the label.

Aloe vera is safe and non-irritating for most people – however, you should avoid aloe if you’re allergic to garlic or tulips.

Carrageenan

Of all the plant gums, we recommend carrageenan for its ultra-smooth, never-tacky feel. Carrageenan is an excellent choice when you want a longer-lasting water-based formula – though you’ll pay a little more per ounce, we think it’s worth it.

Carrageenan is nature’s uber lube – it’s an exopolysaccharide obtained from sustainable red seaweed. In skincare, carrageenan plays a role similar to other plant gums – it holds water in gel form, adds slip, and conditions skin. Carrageenan is valued for its ultra smoothness – unlike some gums, carrageenan doesn’t become tacky or ropey as it dries.

Carrageenan can replace some or all glycols. Less glycol means a lower osmolality. Lower osmolality lubricants are less likely to cause irritation or promote infection.

Carrageenan binds to viruses and has other properties that make it especially useful in targeted drug delivery. On it’s own, it shows promise as a strong inhibitor of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis A. It also showed early promise as an HIV microbicide, but failed in phase III trials and is instead being evaluated as a carrier for anti-retroviral drugs.

Carrageenan has no taste or smell. It’s safe for all condom materials and washes off with plain water.

Carrageenan is a large molecule that cannot be absorbed by the skin. It’s non-irritating and allergies are rare.

Guar, Xanthan & Other Gums

Gums are nature’s slippery stuff – you’ll find them in many water-based lubricants and in almost all aloe-based ones. We love seeing plant gums on the label because they’re gentle and safe for most people and all materials.

The plant gums used in skincare products are polysaccharides obtained directly or indirectly from the cell walls of plants. Guar is made using a more direct milking process. Xanthan is made using a more indirect fermentation process.

Plant gums have a wide range of properties. Xanthan and guar are the most common used in lubricants where they hold water in gel form and add slip. Plant gums can replace some or all glycols. Less glycol means a lower osmolality. Lower osmolality lubricants are less likely to cause irritation or promote infection.

Plant gums have no taste or smell. They are safe for all materials and wash off with plain water.

Gums are large molecules that cannot be absorbed by the skin. They’re non-irritating & non-sensitizing and while they do exist, allergies are rare.

The exception is xanthan which can be processed from a range of sources including wheat, corn, soy, and (rarely) dairy. It’s almost impossible to know which source was used or how much of an allergen is present, so people with strong food allergies need to be cautious with xanthan

Plant Cellulose (Hydroxyethylcellulose)

Pick up any bottle of water, aloe, or silicone hybrid lubricant and you’ll probably see cellulose on the label. It’s a super useful ingredient that’s safe for virtually everyone.

In lubricants, plant cellulose holds lots of water, controls viscosity, and stabilizes emulsions, but it isn’t slippery. While not directly beneficial to skin, cellulose is non-irritating, allergies are rare, and it feels great on the body.

Cellulose has no taste or smell. It’s safe for all materials and washes off with plain water.

Plant Oils

While not for everyone, plant oils are long-lasting and feel luxurious. They transfer body heat well and have a slower action with more skin-on-skin friction, making them a great choice for masturbation.

As awesome as plant oils are, there are some important things to consider before using them for vaginal or anal sex – check out Plant Oils: What’s Safe & What’s Not? to learn more about plant oils and how to make your own lubricant.

The most important thing to know about plaint oils it that they can quickly degrade latex and polyisoprene – don’t use any oil with condoms.

Propanediol (1,3 propanediol)

Most water-based lubricants are water-glycol formulas. Glycols are simple sugar alcohols that add slip and hold moisture. The most commonly used glycols are glycerin, propylene glycol, and propanediol.

Despite what the internet tries to tell you, propanediol and propylene glycol are two different chemicals and are not interchangeable on product labeling.

While glycols are super useful, lubes with a high glycol content are also highly concentrated. High osmolality lubricants can damage vaginal & rectal tissues, increasing our risk of irritation & infection.

When looking for a water-based lube, we recommend propanediol because it’s less sticky than glycerin and has a better safety profile than propylene glycol. We also associate propanediol with premium lubricants formulated to be gentle – though this isn’t universal.

Propanediol is a thick, sweet liquid made by fermenting corn sugar. It has a sweet taste and no smell. It’s safe for all materials and washes off with plain water.

Propanediol is non-irritating and non-sensitizing even at much higher concentrations than you’d find in lube. Propanediol allergies are rare.

Propylene Glycol (1,2 propanediol)

Most water-based lubricants are water-glycol formulas. Glycols are simple sugar alcohols that add slip and hold moisture. The most commonly used glycols are glycerin, propylene glycol, and propanediol.

Despite what the internet tries to tell you, propanediol and propylene glycol are two different chemicals and are not interchangeable on product labeling.

Because it’s cheap and readily available, propylene glycol (PG) has become a common replacement for glycerin in skincare products. Like glycerin, PG is a humectant – it attracts and holds water. It also adds slip, decreases viscosity, improves freeze-thaw stability, aids water-oil emulsification, and can help other ingredients penetrate the skin.

Propylene glycol (PG) has gained an unfairly bad reputation on the internet, mostly because it’s manufactured from the petrochemical propylene oxide – ingredient extremists tend to portray anything related to petrochemicals as toxic, carcinogenic, or otherwise dangerous to human health.

Try researching PG and you’ll find plenty of articles equating propylene glycol with car antifreeze, airplane deicers, and hydraulic brake fluid – all of which might be scary, except they’re usually confusing ethylene glycol with PG.

You’ll also find plenty of articles claiming PG is a strong skin irritant and sensitizer. These gross exaggerations usually cite PG’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which we admit is terrifying, but for good reason.

MSDSs are used by agencies like OSHA & the EPA and apply to industrial scenarios – they’re meant to inform and protect workers at risk of high-dose, high-frequency exposure. MSDSs simply aren’t relevant to FDA regulation of food-grade PG, or the concentrations used in skincare formulas, or the level of consumer exposure.

  • The truth is, the FDA, European Union, and Cosmetic Ingredient Review all agree PG is safe for topical use in concentrations up to 50%, which is much higher than typically seen in skincare products.
  • The truth is PG causes a mild to moderate reaction in 2%-4% percent of the general population and the reaction is believed to be irritating vs sensitizing.
  • The truth is we can name several PG lubricants that are low osmolality – something we haven’t seen with glycerin.

We’re not defending the petroleum industry, and if you have contact dermatitis, you may want to avoid PG, but PG is safe for most people, especially at the concentrations used in skincare products.

We associate PG with a chemically sweet taste and tongue numbing – but it varies widely. PG is safe for all materials and washes off with plain water.

Silicone

If you only have one lube on your nightstand, SLICK.SEXY recommends silicone for its value and safety.

Silicone is a super-slippery synthetic made from quartz – one of Earth’s most abundant and naturally-renewing resources. While silicones cost more per ounce, a little goes a long way – you need less to begin with and don’t need to reapply as often as water-based lubricants.

While some silicones have an oily quality, today’s lubricants are formulated to be non-greasy and non-clingy so they’re easy for the body to expel and won’t harbor bad stuff.

Most lubricants contain a combination of these silicones:

  • Cyclopentasiloxane is water-thin, non-greasy, and volatile – meaning it evaporates. It helps deliver heavier silicones and is often the first ingredient in silicone lubricants.
  • Dimethicone is one of the most widely used cosmetic ingredients. It’s a medium weight silicone with proven skin-healing and protecting properties.
  • Dimethiconol is a heavier weight silicone valued for its non-greasy feel.

Silicones are inert and cannot be absorbed – they don’t trigger allergies or sensitization. And because they don’t contain glycols or preservatives,  silicone lubricants are a great choice for the ingredient-conscious.

Silicone lubricants are safe for all condom materials and for non-porous toys. It is important to note that not all silicone toys are non-porous and can be damaged by silicone lubricants. If you aren’t sure a toy is non-porous, you can do a patch test, cover the toy with a condom, or opt for water-based lube.

We're Researching

Anal Relaxing Lubricants

Anal relaxing lubricants are one of the newer ideas to hit the market. In addition to being thicker, slicker, and longer-lasting than vaginal lubricants, these lubes typically contain jojoba – a plant oil with muscle relaxing properties.

As a safer alternative to anal numbing, SLICK.SEXY plans to review relaxing lubricants in the near future.

Until then, we suggest Pjur Backdoor Silicone Lubricant with jojoba.

Flavored & Scented Lubricants

SLICK.SEXY doesn’t currently review flavored or scented lubricants as a category – although aloe-based lubricants do contain a small amount. Three factors contributed to this decision:

  • When we began researching lubricants and ingredients, we found a lot of debate around the safety of fragrance / aroma. So much so, that we decided to set this research aside as a future project.
  • Most flavored lubricants are glycerin-based – a category we don’t generally recommend because of their high osmolality.
  • Flavored lubes get horrible reviews – finding the best will take time and is slated as a future project.

We hope to review flavored lubricants in the near future. Until then, we suggest Wicked Sensations because the flavors are subtle and they have generally better reviews. We also strongly advise these products should stay on the outside of your body and that you do a patch test before use.

Sensation Lubricants

These are lubricants that cause a cooling, warming, tingling, or numbing sensation.

There are hundreds of sensation-enhancing lubricants on the market. Unfortunately, most are either glycerin-based, or contain ingredients we wouldn’t normally recommend.

Sifting through these products and researching their safety is a massive project. While we hope to review sensation-enhancing lubricants in the future, we haven’t slated this work.

Until then, we suggest the Wicked Ultra Collection. We also strongly advise these products should stay on the outside of your body and that you do a patch test before use.

We Suggest Limiting

Glycerin (Glycerol)

Glycerin is a sugar alcohol derived from plant oils and animal fats as a byproduct of soapmaking & biofuel production.

Glycerin a syrupy liquid that’s clear, odorless, and has a sweet taste. It’s a lubricant & a humectant and is one of the most common cosmetic ingredients.

Glycerin is great for the skin, but it’s notoriously sticky – not the feeling you want in a lube. And glycerin-based lubes tend to have the highest osmolalites, which can increase your chances of irritation & infection.

We recommend propanediol & propylene glycol lubricants over glycerin because they’re less sticky and have generally lower osmolalities – especially propanediol.

Glycerin can play a valuable supporting role – masturbation creams are a good example. But it shouldn’t be one of the first ingredients in a vaginal lubricant.

Mineral Oil & Petroleum Jelly

Mineral oil is a colorless & odorless oil – it’s a byproduct created when distilling petroleum into gasoline.

Mineral oil does nothing for your skin – it has no nutrients, it doesn’t moisturize, and it clogs pores. And there’s evidence that contaminates found in mineral oil are a serious human health risk.

Mineral oil and petroleum jelly should never be used as vaginal or rectal lubricants – they’re difficult for the body to evacuate, can harbor bacteria, and  can cause infections. They also should never be used with latex or polyisoprene condoms.

With so many safer & more effective ingredients, why use mineral oil at all?

At SLICK.SEXY, the only place you’ll find mineral oil is in masturbation lubricants. Mineral oil is slippery but not very lubricating. It makes a long-lasting cream with more skin-on-skin friction that many people like.

We Recommend Avoiding

Anal Numbing Lubricants

As a safer-sex practice, most sexperts do not endorse anal numbing lubricants.

There’s no good reason for anal sex to hurt and pain is how the body communicates damage. Numb the pain and you risk hurting yourself more than you realize at the time.

When anal sex hurts, it’s one of the worst pains imaginable – and it’s not the kind of pain you can work through.

Done right, anal sex can be one of the best feelings you’ll ever experience. Instead of relying on numbing lubes, try these tips:

  • Take an anatomy lesson – Understanding the structures & functions of the anus and rectum is a critical first step.
  • Explore solo – Getting to know your own body in a non-sexual context will help you relax and communicate with a partner.
  • Learn about hygiene – A gentle cleaning is all it takes to avoid poopy encounters and it will do wonders for your ability to relax.
  • Be generous with the lube – The butt doesn’t lubricate itself and spit just doesn’t cut it.
  • Invest in a few toys – There’s a generous size difference between a finger or two and a penis. Longer toys with varied diameters are the best way to work your way up.
  • Control the action – Whether it’s a finger, toy, or penis you’re trying to insert, it’s best for you to do the inserting before turning things over to a partner.
  • Don’t expect to get there in one session – Learning to relax the anus takes awareness and practice.
  • Communicate before, during, and after – Trusting your partner to go slow, to stop when you say stop, and to not get lost in their own excitement is a huge ask. Knowing your body and being able to communicate is just as important as your partner’s ability to listen and respond.

Chlorhexidine

Chlorhexidine is a skin disinfectant that’s used extensively by medical professionals during surgery.

Chlorhexidine is highly effective against a range of microbes, including HIV, which is why a small number of lubricants contain this antiseptic. Some KY and Astroglide formulas contain chlorhexidine.

Paradoxically, there is evidence that chlorhexidine causes significant damage to vaginal and rectal tissues, which is linked to an increased risk of infection.

While the evidence is conflicting, there are plenty of ingredients with better safety profiles and we see no good reason for chlorhexidine in lubricants.

Polyquaternium

Polyquaterniums are positively charged polymers used in hair and skin care products. They are antistatic agents & hair fixatives that come from natural and synthesized sources.

In lubricants, polyquaterniums help deposit other ingredients onto the skin.

There are 37+ polyquaterniums approved for use in personal care products, but we found only 3 used in lubricants.

And while they’re common in shampoo, conditioners, hairspray, and lotions, they are unusual in lubricants. We cataloged the ingredients of 380+ products and found only 14 with polyquaternium.

Each has a moderate hazard score in the EWG Skin Deep Database, but there’s little-to-no data cited. A search of the NIH databases returned very little for polyquaterniums in general. The main concern seems to be about the lack of research for a chemical we are routinely exposed to.

SLICK.SEXY was made aware of polyquaterniums by the World Health Organization’s advisory note on the use and procurement of additional lubricants for male and female condoms.

In it, the WHO cites conflicting research linking polyquaternium with the risk of HIV. Until we know more about the safety of polyquaterniums, we’ve decided not to review lubricants with this ingredient.

Nonoxynol-9

Nonoxynol-9 is a chemical detergent used in spermicides. It works by making holes in cell walls, killing the sperm.

Unfortunately, nonoxynol-9 can’t tell the difference between sperm and skin cells. Studies confirm nonoxynol-9 damages vaginal & rectal tissue, causes irritation, and increases your chances of infection.

While more common in the past, very few of today’s condoms and personal lubricants contain nonoxynol-9. Even so, we think it’s worth mentioning.