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Lube 101: what it is, why to use it, and how to choose the best lube for you

Lube 101: what it is, why to use it, and how to choose the best lube for you

5 min read

Painful or uncomfortable sex isn't fun to have or talk about. But luckily, there's an affordable, safe, and accessible solution: lube.

According to one recent study, 66% of people with ovaries across the US use lubricant to achieve more enjoyable intercourse, sex toy play, masturbation, and whatever else floats their boat.

If you’re on the fence about using lube, we’re here to empower you to explore all avenues to maximize your pleasure. In this article we’ll discuss:

  • What exactly is lube? Personal lubricant was created to enhance your sexual experiences by reducing vaginal discomfort or dryness during sexual acts.
  • Reasons to use lube. Lube can truly benefit anyone, but it’s especially useful for those who are taking medications that can cause vaginal dryness, people who are pregnant, or folks going through perimenopause (aka, the time period leading up to menopause).
  • Different types of lube. Fertility-friendly, water-based, silicone-based, oil-based, natural — we’ve got you covered on what to try and why!

What is lube?

Personal lubricant — aka “lube”— was designed to alleviate discomfort or dryness during sexual acts (read: make sex more pleasurable). Available as a liquid or gel, lube is used as a supplement for the genital secretions that the body naturally produces.

During arousal, the vagina produces a natural lubricant substance meant to ease entry inside and aid in pleasure. A *lot* of factors can impact when, if, and how much of these secretions are present, and when there is not enough for comfortable penetration (or if anal penetration is preferred) synthetic lube can help supplement the situation.

Reasons to use lube

It turns out that using lube is backed by science! Studies show that the use of a water-based or silicone-based lubricant is associated with higher sexual pleasure for both masturbation and partnered penetrative sex.

Lube is especially useful when vaginal dryness is a serious barrier to enjoying your experience. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, approximately 75% of people with ovaries have experienced painful sex at some point. One of the main causes? Insufficient lubrication.

According to Emily Nagoski, a sex educator and author of the book, Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, your body might not respond to sexual stimulus with sufficient lubrication for a number of reasons, including “arousal non-concordance.” This, she says, is when your body’s responses to sexual stimulation don’t line up with your experience of desire. More on this later!

Vaginal dryness is also very frequently affected by changing hormone levels:

  • Breastfeeding. When your body makes milk, it releases a hormone called prolactin, which causes production of hormone FSH to decrease, leading to a decrease in estrogen too. This is why many postpartum people often report burning pain when they resume sex. When you’re breastfeeding, it’s normal for the vaginal skin to be dry, fragile, and thin. Lube can be an essential tool to avoid injury.
  • Perimenopause. Vaginal dryness is a common symptom in the perimenopause (the time leading up to menopause) and can severely impact a person’s quality of life. Personal lubricants are an effective treatment option for relieving sexual discomfort or pain, especially for people who have conditions that are incompatible with estrogen therapy.

Stress and anxiety, physical health conditions, and certain medications can all also influence vaginal dryness and therefore the quality of your sexual experience.

“One of the more commonly glossed over triggers of low libido and therefore lower lubrication is SSRI medication, which is used to treat depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Jenn Conti, OB-GYN and Modern Fertility Medical Advisor. “These meds are essential, but we often forget to talk to people about how helping their mental health may also impact their sexual health.”

How can you pick the right lube for you?

Here are some pointers on finding the right lube for you. The first thing is to understand the difference between moisturizer and lube.

Vaginal moisturizers add moisture inside and around the vagina. They’re great for relieving dryness, but if your goal is a better sexual experience then it’s really lube that you’re after (FYI, they’re safe to use together). Lube is designed specifically to decrease discomfort during sexual activity.

So what are your options?

  • Water-based lube. Easy to find and simple to clean up, water-based lube is a great way to experiment for the first time. It’s safe for penetrative intercourse (even with condoms), as well as sex toys. The only word of caution with water-based lubricants is that they can dry up quickly so you’ll likely need to add more lube to maintain your preferred level of moisture.
  • Silicone-based lube. This option tends to last longer than water and is safe for condoms (yay, safe sex) but isn’t compatible with sex toys made with silicone (it can cause them to break down). An easy way to remember is “like damages like.”
  • Oil-based lube. Also lining the pharmacy shelves is oil-based lubricant. Oil can weaken latex so this type of lube should be avoided if you’re using condoms. (Condoms help protect against sexually transmitted infections. Not using them can put you at risk of contracting one.)
  • Fertility-friendly lube. The FDA introduced the category of fertility-friendly lube (also known as “gamete, fertilization, and embryo compatible” personal lubricants) in 2017. Products get this label if extensive testing shows no negative impact to sperm, eggs, and fertilization. (Important note: no lube on the market will increase your chances of getting pregnant, but fertility friendly lube does create a more conducive environment for sperm to swim around in.)

Coconut and almond oil are are fine to use as lubricants, just not with condoms. Like other types of oil-based lubes, coconut and almond oil can cause condoms to break down.

What to avoid when choosing a lube? Consider steering clear of baby oil, petroleum jelly, and refined oils.

How does lube work?

Lube is safe to apply to any part of the body — so hands, fingers, vagina, and anus are all fair game.

Other than that, we suggest following the directions listed on your specific lube. Usually this means starting with a small amount of lubrication and gradually increasing until you’ve found the right balance.

True or false: If you're  “wet," that's a sure-fire sign that you're turned on. (And the inverse: if you're not wet, that means you're not turned on.)

The answer: False! The truth is that “wetness” and other sexual bodily responses (like blood flow to the genitals) are involuntary responses to sex-related stimuli. And there’s a term from sex educator Emily Nagoski for when your subjective experience of desire (aka, how in the mood you are) and your body’s responses don’t line up — it’s called arousal non-concordance.

In other words, it’s completely possible to be very turned on, and not be wet. And that’s another reason to celebrate lube, which can help make sex comfortable and pleasurable if our natural lubrication needs a boost.

TL;DR

For many people with ovaries, lube is a secret ingredient for better sex. Whether it’s with a partner or on your own, consider experimenting with lubrication — water-based, silicone-based, oil based, or specifically fertility-friendly — as a way to take control of your pleasure. Have more questions? Speak with your healthcare provider to discuss your specific concerns and explore what lube might be best for you.


This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Conti, MD, MS, MSc.

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Alexandria Bachert

Alex is a freelance health and science writer, public health professional, and new mama based in New Jersey. She enjoys food tours, making lists, and strolls with her mini bernedoodle.

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