Why do Lubricants Cause Irritation?
And what to look for instead
SLICK.SEXY began as one woman’s mission to put out the crotch fire a lubricant caused. While ‘sticky’ is the #1 complaint, read enough reviews and you’ll find ‘burning’ and ‘irritation’ are way too common. Here’s a broad summary of why a lube may be causing irritation and what to look for instead.
Broadly, there are 4 reasons why a personal lubricant may cause irritation:
pH & osmolality – Many water-based lubricants are less acidic and more concentrated than our natural lubrication. This can damage skin cells and disrupt vaginal flora, causing irritation and increasing your risk of infection.
Preservatives – Most lubricants contain preservatives that prevent harmful microbes from growing. Preservatives are designed to attack living cells. Unfortunately, they don’t discriminate – preservatives can irritate skin cells & disrupt vaginal flora.
Allergies – Meaning you experience a histamine reaction when exposed to an ingredient. The ingredients found in lubricants are common to cosmetics and toiletries, so you’re probably already aware of your allergy and know which ingredients to avoid.
Sensitivities – Different than allergies, sensitivities develop over the course of multiple exposures – meaning a lube that’s worked in the past may suddenly cause burning or irritation.
The Most Likely Suspect
Highly Concentrated Lubricants
As you shop, you may notice some water-based lubricants labeled as ‘low osmolality’. We look at the importance of osmolality in a separate post, but here’s a quick rundown …
Osmolality measures the concentration of particles in a solution. Think of Kool-Aid. The water is the solvent and the drink mix is the particles, or solute. You can make a weak batch of Kool-Aid or a strong one.
Osmolality is measured as milliosmoles (solutes) per kilogram of water (mOsmol/kg). Our body fluids are relatively dilute with an osmolality between 250 – 380 mOsmol/kg.
When a water-based lubricant is more concentrated than our own fluids, the lubricant is hypertonic – the relatively higher concentration creates osmotic pressure that pulls water out of cells. Studies confirm that hypertonic lubricants can damage vaginal & rectal tissues, in turn causing irritation and increasing your chances of infection.
Most manufactures aren’t forthcoming about the osmolality of their products, but a lubricant’s ingredients can provide clues. The strongest predictor of osmolality is glycol content.
Most water-based lubricants are water-glycol formulas made with either glycerin, propylene glycol, or propanediol, and occasionally PEG.
While there’s limited data, glycerin-based lubricants are virtually guaranteed to have an osmolality several times greater than our bodies.
Propylene glycol lubricants have the widest range, but you can find low osmolality formulas like Genneve.
Propanediol has the same potential, but it’s a premium ingredient we generally associate with gentler formulas.
While osmolality is of special concern for women who are prone to irritation or infections and for women trying to conceive, we believe every vagina is sensitive. We strongly recommend avoiding glycerin-based lubes because of their high osmolality and because they’re notoriously sticky.
Preservatives, Allergies & Sensitivities
As individuals we experience a wide range of reactions to the ingredients we’re exposed to. It’s the main reason we don’t value natural ingredients over synthetic ones – you have to use what’s right for you.
As a category, flavors / aroma / fragrances have the most potential to be irritating – which is the main reason we don’t review or recommend flavored / scented lubricants.
As a category, preservatives also have high potential to be irritating. If you have no known allergies but find certain lubricants irritating, we suggest checking for a common preservative.
While you can be allergic to any ingredient, the most common found in lube are:
Aloe vera – Avoid aloe if you’re allergic to garlic, onions, lilies, or tulips.
Plant oils – Be cautious with oils if you have strong food allergies, especially to tree nuts.
Xanthan gum – Consider skipping xanthan if you have a strong allergy to wheat, corn, soy, or dairy.
As if this weren’t vague enough, keep in mind that you may not have a problem with a single ingredient, but with the overall combination or concentration of ingredients. It’s completely possible to have two seemingly similar products where one is irritating and the other is not.
Be selective as you research ingredients – the internet is jamb-packed with blatantly false information generated by extremists and blindly copy-pasted. Parebens and propylene glycol are prime examples of this phenomena. We suggest sticking to sites like the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed.
Low osmolality or isotonic – At SLICK.SEXY, low osmolality lubricants have a known or reasonably estimated osmolality of less than 700 mOsm/kg.
If your options are glycerin, propylene glycol, or propanediol, then choose propanediol. Look for formulas that replace all or some glycols with carrageenan and plant gums like xanthan or guar.
Aloes-based lubricants – Aloe is naturally low osmolality and aloe-based lubes are made with plant gums and cellulose instead of glycols. They’re a great choice when you need a light sexual lubricant or a daily moisturizer.
Plant oil lubricants – Stay away from canola, olive, and other kitchen oils. Instead, look for formulas that contain avocado oil, sweet almond oil, coconut oil, and/or castor oil – all of which have proven skin-loving qualities.
Silicone lubricants – Silicones are inert, cannot be absorbed, and don’t require preservatives. From an ingredient perspective, they don’t contain anything to cause irritation. The best formulas are super slick, non-greasy, and don’t cling, so they won’t promote yeast infections or BV.
Do a Patch Test
Before putting a new lube in your vagina, place some on a cotton ball and hold it in your mouth between your cheek and gums for several minutes. After removing the cotton ball, wait several hours to see if irritation or skin changes develop. While not foolproof, it’s a better indicator than testing on your arm.
Our mission is to prevent crotch fires – we hope this helps! Has a lube ever made you regret the hot sex you had the night before? Did you figure out which ingredient caused the problem? Do you have a gentle lube you’d recommend? Let us know in the comments below ?