Sexual Health Q&A

What is a lubricant?

During sexual arousal, a woman’s vagina typically becomes lubricated, making it wetter and ready for sex. Many women find that lubrication makes sex more comfortable or enjoyable because it reduces friction and irritation.

However, sometimes women experience vaginal dryness. The vagina does not lubricate enough, leading to pain or discomfort. This can happen when estrogen levels drop during menopause. Vaginal dryness can also occur when a woman is breastfeeding, undergoing chemotherapy, or when she has been treated for breast cancer.

Sometimes, women just prefer more lubrication than their bodies provide.

In these circumstances, a lubricant can help. A lubricant is a liquid or gel that women and their partners can apply during sex to make the vulva, vagina, or anal area wetter. Lubricant can also be applied to a man’s penis or a sex toy to make them more slippery.

There are several types of lubricants, each with advantages and disadvantages.

Water-based lubricants are usually inexpensive and easy to find. They also wash off easily. However, they may not last as long as a couple would like and may need to be reapplied during sex to maintain moisture.

Silicone-based lubricants tend to last longer than water-based lubricants. However, they do not rinse as easily and irritate some women if they aren’t rinsed immediately after sex.

It’s important to note that water- and silicone-based lubricants may contain glycerin, which can lead to inflammation and yeast infections. If this becomes a problem, lubricants without glycerin are available.

Oil-based lubricants should be used with caution. These lubricants cannot be used with latex condoms, as they will weaken the latex, making the condom more likely to leak or break. In turn, this increases the risk of unplanned pregnancy or transmission of a sexually-transmitted infection (STI).

Petroleum-based lubricants, such as those made from petroleum jelly, mineral oil, or baby oil, cause irritation or inflammation for some women.

Choosing a lubricant is a personal decision. Couples can try different types to see what works best for them. If a particular lubricant causes irritation or an allergic reaction, the couple should stop using it and try another kind. A doctor or sex therapist can provide guidance, if needed.