Hanna Hosking
27.01.24
Education

Water, oil and silicone: How to choose a lube that's right for you

Sexologist Hanna Hosking explains the main kinds of lube and how to spot a quality product

There’s a bewildering number of lube options when you walk into just about any supermarket or adult store and distinguishing a quality lube from a substandard one often feels like guesswork. Still, the right lube can enhance your sexual experience, support safe-sex practices, and help you get the most out of your toys. This article will make you an expert who can confidently choose the right tool for the job and tell a premium lube from a bad one.



Water and oil and silicone, oh my!


There are three main types of lubricant: water, oil and silicone based. Water based is the perfect ‘all rounder’ that’s perfect for just about every activity and situation. It’s a great option for anal, oral and vaginal sex, and is equally good for masturbation and touch play. Importantly, it’s suitable for all condom types and is also ideal for condomless play and any toy materials. If that wasn’t enough, it’s also east to wash off bodies, clothes and sheets!


Water based lube can require application during sex so make sure to check in with your partner(s) regularly. If you’re planning on an intense or very long session, oil or silicone might be more convenient. Similarly, water based may dissolve or wash off if used in a wet environment, such a sauna, steam room or shower, so be sure to reapply often or consider an alternative lube.


Oil based lubricant, for its part, is long lasting and silky to the touch. Like water based, it’s great for anal, oral, and vaginal sex, as well as masturbation. It’s also particularly well suited for body play and massage, and is ideal for condomless play. Oil based lubes are compatible with nitrile and polyurethane condoms and are safe to use with toys made from ceramic, crystal, glass, metal and stone.


However, avoid using oil based lube with latex or polyisoprene condoms, as oil causes these materials to break down. Oil based is not suitable for silicone or latex toys and will shorten the lifespan of your toys if used. It can also stain clothes and sheets, so be sure to use a towel or blanket to save your threads. Additionally, if you have any kind of nut allergy (especially for almond, avocado or coconut) spot test new oil based lubes to check for sensitivity.


Silicone lubricants are the longest lasting and are the most slippery compared to water and oil based. Because you need to reapply less often than, say, water based, it’s particularly well-suited to lengthy or intense play, especially with multiple partners. In terms of activities, it’s great for anal and vaginal sex as well as masturbation. It’s also okay for oral sex as the body doesn’t absorb silicon and is safe to use with all condom types.


Nevertheless, silicone lubes shouldn’t be used with silicone toys as it will degrade the material and reduce the lifespan of your toy. It can taste slightly less pleasant than water or oil based, and can easily stain clothes and sheets. It’s also harder to wash off which makes it great for aqua play or play in wet and humid environments, but means you’ll need some soap and warm water when you’re finished.


One last thing to consider is shelf life. Water and silicone lubes generally have a longer shelf life than oil based. Oils that have not been stabilised or fractionated may go rancid after a few months of opening. Rancid oil isn’t harmful but it smells stale like crayons or paint, and will leave a similarly unpleasant taste in your mouth. Prefer lubes with fractionated oils and ensure you don’t use any lubricant after its used by date.


'There are three main types of lubricant: water, oil and silicone'




Anal, oral and vaginal sex: games for one (or more)


As you might be beginning to appreciate, different lubes are good for different things and often the 'best' lube depends on what you're doing. For example, if you’re participating in bareback (i.e. condomless) anal sex silicon may feel most comfortable but water based is generally better if you’re using toys. Avoid using oil based with based with latex or polyisoprene condoms and remember: when it comes to anal, more (lube) is more!


If oral is the main game, look for as many natural ingredients as possible. Silicone lube can be ingested in small quantities as it’s not absorbed by the body. Still, always double check the label to confirm that it’s edible, as non-edible ones may leave a harmless but unpleasant film in your mouth. Avoid anything with petrochemicals, especially petroleum jelly (sometimes vaguely referred to as ‘mineral oil’) and petrolatum as these have laxative effects and can cause choking in large quantities.


When it comes to vaginal sex, look for lubes that are dermatologically tested, pH balanced and made with as many natural ingredients as possible. If you experience vaginal dryness, menopause or post-menopause, you may need to reapply water based more often as it dries out faster than oil or silicone. Avoid flavoured or sweetened lubes as additives and sugar can cause thrush or inflammation.


Finally, for masturbation, oil or silicone based lubricants can often be thicker and more viscous, creating a more tactile sensation. Things like length, sensitivity, circumcision and how much you pre-cum can all effect what feels best for you. Once you’ve found a quality product, it’ll take some trial and error to find out what kind of lube you prefer for what activity.


'Different lubes are good for different things and often the 'best' lube depends on what you're doing'


The good, the bad, and the just plain cheap


Not all lubes are created equal: many are pretty average and some are just plain bad. Lubes often contain synthetic and undesirable ingredients, while some just feel cheap (i.e. watered down, tackey etc). By learning just a little about pH balance, osmolality, humectants and preservatives, you can get a pretty good idea about the quality of a lube without wasting money on bad ones.


Knowing that your lubricant is pH balanced for your body is crucial, especially for anal and vaginal sex. Using a lube with a pH level that is too low or too high can disrupt the natural flora in your body and cause discomfort, irritation and stinging. For anal sex, look for a lube between 6-7 pH, or 3.5-4.5 pH for vaginal sex.


Osmolality is the scientific term for the concentration of particles in a solution. If that sounds too technical, don’t worry! The short story is that lubes with high osmolality increase the risk of anal and vaginal tears and STIs. High osmolality can also effect sperm mobility, and long term use can cause cytotoxicity, impacting fertility. Look for lubes with low osmolality, within the WHO’s recommended guidelines of less than 1200 Osm/kg.


Humectants, on the other hand, are hydrating and moisturising ingredients. One of the most common humectants, glycerine, is a cheap way of bulking out a lube but it can also cause discomfort and skinning for people engaging in receptive anal and vaginal sex. Australian law does not require manufacturers to declare the source of their glycerine, so it may or may not be derived from animals.


Like glycerine, propylene glycol might be manufactured from low-quality sources, while petroleum jelly and petrolatum are oil by-products which can cause irritation and thrush. The name of the game here is natural humectants, such as plant extracts. Look for lubes that feature plant extracts as high up in their ingredients list as possible.


Benzoate acid, parabens, phenoxyethanol, phthalates and sorbates are all routine preservatives (i.e. things that keep lubes fresh for longer) but they can also can cause irritation and have been linked to long-term negative health impacts. Additionally, chlorhexidine is an over-zealous antibacterial that can kill off the helpful bacteria inside the body. Ingredients such as sodium benzoate and citric acid have been found to be safe in small quantities.


'Not all lubes are created equal: many are pretty average and some are just plain bad'


Which lube is right for you?


Ultimately, which lube is right for you depends on your personal preferences and what you’re doing. Water based is a good all-rounder and oil based is good for most things, with some caveats. Silicon is long lasting, making it suited to intense or long sessions, especially with multiple partners. If you're not sure what to use, have a look at our handy flow chart (above).


When buying, look for dermatologically tested and pH balanced lubes with natural ingredients. If you have questions or you’re unsure about a particular product, speak to your GP or visit one of the sexual health clinics located in most major cities. Just don’t skimp when buying lube! You’re putting it on or inside your body, and you and your partner(s) deserve the best!


Hanna Hosking (she/her) is a Queer gender and sexuality educator and qualified sexologist. She runs workshops on consensual platonic touch and champions LGBTQ+ inclusion in the corporate sphere. She is a board member for a US-based LGBTQ+ NGO and advocates for removing barriers so that people can lead healthier sexual lives.


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