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Why does vaginal lubrication matter for sex?

Why does vaginal lubrication matter for sex?

5 min read

The body operates with its own secret language. When we're hungry, our stomachs growl. When we're sleepy, we yawn. And when we're turned on ... well, our bodies let us know as well. For some people an increase in vaginal lubrication is one of the first signs.

So the question is: Just how important is vaginal lubrication for sex (or sexual activities)?

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • Arousal fluids vs other vaginal fluids. When sexual stimulation occurs, your body naturally secretes a clear and slippery lubrication. This is different from cervical mucus or vaginal discharge.
  • The Bartholin's glands and their role in sex. These two pea-sized glands are an essential part of both the sexual experience and the reproductive system. The glands produce vaginal lubrication which helps to reduce friction and leads to better sex (and sex toy play and self play!).
  • Causes of vaginal discomfort or pain. Sometimes, even when we’re horny, the body isn't able to produce enough natural lubrication which can make sex uncomfortable. Common reasons include perimenopause, breastfeeding, certain medications, and more.
  • How to give your lubrication supply a boost. Lube! If you’re trying to conceive, fertility-friendly lube is a great way to improve sex and support the process of conception. Other options include water-based lube, oil-based lube, and silicone-based lube.
  • A supplement a day, keeps the dryness away? Well, that might not be exactly right, but there is some evidence that vitamin E, DHEA, fish oil, and others can help increase vaginal secretion.

What is natural vaginal lubrication and why does it matter?

Vaginal fluid is a window into the complex processes going on inside your body. It varies in color, consistency, and amount depending on phases of the menstrual cycle and other factors.

In this article, we’ll focus on arousal fluids: the clear, slick, and slippery lubrication that’s produced when you’re sexually stimulated. This isn’t to be confused with cervical mucus, which can be used to track ovulation (the phase of your cycle when you’re most likely to get pregnant), or vaginal discharge which is a mix of cervical mucus and oils from vaginal glands.

Not sure how to spot the difference between arousal fluids and cervical mucus? Arousal fluids usually dry up and disappear within one hour.

The goal of arousal fluids? To moisten the vagina and help reduce friction. Said another way, it’s the body’s way preparing for sexual activity. And we can’t forget to give a shoutout to the Bartholin glands: two pea-sized glands flanking the vaginal opening that generate mucus and vaginal lubrication in preparation for sexual activity.

What happens when vaginal lubrication needs a boost?

Sometimes, the body isn't able to produce enough natural lubrication. This is totally normal, and there are a number of reasons you might not be “wet” even if you feel turned on.

One reason your body might not generate a sufficient amount of natural lubrication is called “arousal non-concordance.” It’s a term from sex educator Emily Nagoski for when your subjective experience of arousal (aka, how turned on you feel) doesn’t line up with your body’s response to a sexy situation. Put another way, it’s totally possible to be turned on, and not wet. When this happens, lube is a great tool for increasing pleasure and comfort.

There are also specific time periods when vaginal dryness is more likely to occur. During the postpartum period and breastfeeding, estrogen levels are known to decrease. Prolactin, a hormone that’s responsible for maintaining a healthy milk supply while breastfeeding, can suppress your estrogen levels — resulting in less lubrication.

Vaginal dryness is also a hallmark of perimenopause — the time that leads up to menopause, which is defined as when you’ve gone 12 months without a period. ​​The average age of menopause in the US is 51, but symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal dryness can begin up to 10 years before you’re officially menopausal. Personal lubricants have shown to be an effective treatment option for relieving sexual discomfort or pain, especially for people who have conditions that are incompatible with estrogen therapy. Sometimes, additional treatment is needed and vaginal estrogen replacement cream can be extremely helpful.

Personal lubricant is available in liquid and gel forms to help reduce discomfort or dryness during sex; this could mean intercourse, sex toy play, or masturbation.

So what are your options?

If you're considering pregnancy now or in the future, you might want to try a fertility-friendly lube (also known as “gamete, fertilization, and embryo compatible” personal lubricants). Fertility-friendly lubes don’t *increase* your chances of getting pregnant. Rather they’re specifically formulated to create a more conducive environment for sperm to swim, and are pH balanced to help protect sperm.

Other lube categories include:

Water-based lube. Think of this as an introduction to the world of lube. Easy to find, use, and clean up, water-based lube is a great option. It’s safe for intercourse, but does tend to dry up quickly so you’ll likely need to reapply.

Silicone-based lube. This category of lube usually lasts longer than water-based lube and is safe for use with condoms. However, it should avoided when using sex toys that also contain silicone as it can destroy the device.

Oil-based lube. Oil-based lube is a solid choice for longevity, but there are some negatives. It can clog pores, stain fabric, and is said to weaken latex so this type of lube should be avoided if you’re using condoms. (Condoms help protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and not using them can put you at risk of contracting a STI.)

Are there any science-backed ways to increase natural vaginal lubrication?

It seems like there’s a supplement for everything, so you may find yourself wondering if that includes vaginal dryness. Turns out there is some research linking supplements, such as vitamin D and DHEA, to female lubrication but more data is needed to prove this theory.

A recent systemic review on the effect of Vitamin D on vaginal health found that vitamin D (both oral supplements and suppositories) decreased dryness and improved vaginal health during menopause. Another small study had similar findings among older women.

Researchers have also studied vitamin E and fish oil as supplements for increasing female lubrication. One small study found that a vitamin E  could improve symptoms of vaginal atrophy (defined as inflammation, dryness, and thinning of the vaginal walls).

And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone — a hormone involved in estrogen production. DHEA naturally declines with age and there are studies investigating its role in improving female lubrication and reducing dryness.

The bottom line

Arousal fluids are the body's way of preparing for sexual activity. This specific type of vaginal lubrication is clear, wet, and slippery; however, there are circumstances — such as menopause and breastfeeding — which can influence production. The good news is that lube and even some supplements may be helpful resources to get your body and mind on the same page. As always, we suggest speaking with your healthcare provider for resources on how to best support your sexual health needs.


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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