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Pelvic + Sexual Health

What is the best lubricant for women's sexual pleasure and pain management?

May 18, 2020Dr. Anna McMaster, PT, DPT5 mins
A woman's legs stretched out in bed with soft light coming from a nearby window

UPDATED AUGUST 25, 2022

At Origin, we’re big fans of lube. It can be incredibly helpful to so many women and is not used enough! The use of lubricant has been associated with higher ratings of female sexual pleasure during masturbation and vaginal penetrative sex.

There are so many different kinds and brands of lube, it can be hard to know which one to pick. Well, worry not, this post will tell you everything you need to know about lubricant for women, and all individuals with vaginal anatomy, and how to pick the right lube for you.

Why use lubricant during sex or masturbation?

Some of our patients have shared feeling embarrassed to “have to use lube” because of vaginal dryness – but there is nothing embarrassing about using lube. Many women experience vaginal dryness, and not just women who have gone through menopause. A multinational study found that between 5-19.7% of women between the ages of 18-65 years old reported vaginal dryness. According to the Mayo Clinic, vaginal dryness can be caused by breastfeeding, childbirth, cancer treatment to the female reproductive system, immune disorders, use of medications that affect your estrogen level (i.e., birth control!), menopause, perimenopause, and even use of allergy medications. So, it's common to feel a little dry down there, and definitely nothing to be embarrassed about.

Even if you don’t have vaginal dryness, using lube can help things move a little smoother. Especially if you're having sex for the first time postpartum when your vagina is usually more sensitive, using a lubricant can improve comfort and decrease anxiety in the moment. Even if you've never needed it before, we think it's good to have one on hand! Maybe there wasn’t as much foreplay as you usually like, or maybe you are using lube to help you with vaginal dilators, wands, or weights. In any case, when lube is the question, yes (!) is almost certainly the answer.

A July 2022 research review by the World Health Organization found all of these benefits to using lube:

  • Use of lubricant during sex may result in improved sexual health and well-being
  • Lubricant is particularly helpful for vaginal dryness associated with menopause and dyspareunia (pain with sexual intercourse/vaginal penetration)
  • Lubricant facilitates optimal sexual function, pleasure, and enjoyment across genders and regardless of specific health conditions
  • Lubricants are recommended to reduce condom breakage and prevent sexually transmitted infections

Why does it matter which lube I use?

Personal lubricants are typically broken up into three categories: water-based, silicone-based, and oil-based. Each type is best used in certain situations.

Water-based lube

Water-based lube is typically a good place to start for most people given that it can be used in a variety of situations. Water-based lube is generally the most common and affordable and compatible with all birth control/safe sex barrier methods. Water-based lubes can also have a hydrating effect on tissues over time.

Water-based lube is especially good for:

  • Penetrative sex with or without a condom
  • Use with silicone sex toys
  • Use with silicone dilators and vaginal weights
  • People who have sensitive vulvas and / or vaginas and experience irritation often

The Cons:

  • Might get sticky
  • You will most likely have to reapply multiple times
  • Most likely to contain preservatives and other irritants

Silicone-based lube

Silicone-based lube is great because it lasts a long time. No worrying about having to reapply! But, silicone-based lube cannot be used with anything made out of silicone, and many sex toys, dilators, and vaginal weights are made with silicone nowadays. Unfortunately, it will damage the rubber over time.

Silicone-based lube is great for:

  • Penetrative sex with or without a condom
  • Non-silicone sex toy usage (i.e., plastic, glass)
  • Non-silicone dilator or vaginal weight usage (i.e., plastic, glass)
  • Shower or bath situations

The Cons:

  • Cannot be used with silicone items
  • Can stain sheets, clothes
  • Requires some effort to clean up afterward, but can be done with soap and water

Oil-based lube

Oil-based (sometimes called plant oil based) lubes are similar to silicone-based lubes because they also last a little longer. However, oil-based lubes can damage condoms and cause them to break, so make sure you are using either water or silicone-based lubes if you are using condoms.

Oil-based lubes are good for:

  • Unprotected penetrative sex (no condoms!)
  • Non-latex sex toy usage (i.e., glass)
  • Non-latex dilator or vaginal weight usage  (i.e., glass)
  • People who have sensitive vulvas or vaginas and don’t like water-based lubes
  • People looking for a 100% organic option

The Cons:

  • Cannot be used with condoms or any other latex item
  • May be difficult to wash out of sheets
  • May be difficult to clean up afterward
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What else should I look for in my lube?

pH

Vaginal pH is generally a bit acidic, with pH between 3.5-4.5. However, pH changes throughout the menstrual cycle, and with decreased estrogen levels will become less acidic (up to pH of 6-7). Therefore if you are lactating or in menopause and use a more acidic lubricant (lower number), it can cause burning/stinging.

The World Health Organization recommends using a lubricant with a pH of 4.5. After looking at the pH of some popular brands, it’s clear that most lubricants do not hit this goal, but many come close to it.

Osmolality

That's a mouthful, but basically, it means the concentration of molecular ingredients vs. water in a lubricant. A lubricant with very little water and a large concentration of ingredients will draw water out of your body’s cells. Research has found that lubricant for women and vagina owners with high osmolality lead to dehydration, cell damage, irritation sensitive vaginal tissues, and an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections.

The World Health Organization recommends using a lubricant with osmolality below 1200 mOsm/kg. Many lubricants have a osmolality much higher than this number (most notably the original formulas for K-Y Jelly and Astroglide), so that’s something to look out for.

Glycerin

Avoid products with glycerin, as it can cause yeast overgrowth and has a high osmolality (potential for irritation).

Other additives

In general, we typically recommend using lubes that are free of additives, including:

  • Parabens
  • Heavy scents
  • Warming agents
  • Flavors

These additives can be potentially irritating to the vulva and vagina, so check the ingredients before you buy!

WHICH LUBRICANTS ARE BEST for WOMEN?

There are many so many lubricants available for women and individuals with vaginal anatomy, but the list gets much smaller when you eliminate brands with potentially harmful ingredients and take a closer look at pH levels and osmolality (note that this data isn’t always available).

Whether you’re trying lubricant for the first time or looking for a new favorite that won’t damage delicate vaginal tissue, these are some great options to start with:

Best Water-Based Lubricants for Pleasure, Pain-Management & Menopause

Slippery stuff is one of the most recommended water-based lubricants of all time. It has an osmolality of 26 and a pH level of 6.8.

Good Clean Love’s lubricants, including their Almost Naked organic, water-based lube have come out on top in studies for their pH-balanced formulas and low osmolality (they also list pH and osmolality levels for all their lube on their website).

Best SILICONE Lubricants for Pleasure, Pain-Management & Menopause

Good Clean Loves' hybrid water and silicone lube is another winner to try. It combines the best of both types of lubes (though, because it contains silicone, it's still not safe to use with condoms or silicone toys).

Other silicone lubricants we love include Uberlube and Maude's Shine, both silky formulas that are free of parabens, glycerin, and flavors/scents. They also come in attractive pump bottles that will fit right in on your bedside table. (Neither pH levels nor osmolality apply to Silicone lubes because, unlike water-based lubes, they don’t require the same preservatives or other ingredients to keep them stable.)

Best Water-Based lubricant IF YOU'RE TRYING TO GET PREGNANT

Pre-Seed’s Fertility Friendly lubricant was created to support conception and is one of the most widely studied lubricants. Its pH (7.1-7.4) and osmolality (314) levels are optimized to support sperm function and protect vaginal tissue.

What to do when lube's not enough

If we haven't already convinced you, lube is wonderful. But sometimes there can be more specific issues that even lube can't solve. Our team at Origin is here to help you get to the root of the issue whether it's vaginal dryness, painful sex, or even returning to sex postpartum. Schedule an in-person or virtual visit with our team today.

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Dr. Anna McMaster, PT, DPT

Anna McMaster, PT, DPT, PRPC is a doctor of physical therapy specializing in women's health at Origin.

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