Lifestyle

How to pick the best lubes for sex

Here's everything you wanted to know (but maybe were afraid to ask).

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My first time buying lube was a disaster. I was 16 and got one as a joke because it had coconuts on the label. Although it was water-based and supposed to be moisturizing, it dried out quickly, leaving behind a gelatinous goo on my skin that reminded me of hair gel and almost turned me off the stuff completely.

Almost, but not quite. Although my initial experience was a letdown, I’ve since come to love lubes. The best ones make all kinds of sex feel better, creating a smooth buffer that reduces friction during penetration, so you’re less likely to suffer from soreness or irritation brought on by dryness.

As a result, lube can help prolong pleasure and heighten arousal. However, a lot of people have an instant knee-jerk reaction against using or asking for one. Chalk it up to the stigma that not producing “enough” natural lubrication implies, says author and certified sex coach Gigi Engle: “There’s this gross misconception that if you need to use lube, you’re not getting wet enough, or there’s something wrong with your body and how aroused you get, because your body’s not responding in this, like, textbook way.”

According to Engle, aversion to lube in most cases has nothing to do with the product, but with fear that a partner will be offended. “People don’t get why they need [lube] and they don’t get why their partners are so weirded out by it. When, really, lube should be used by pretty much everybody.”

The taboos surrounding lube are damaging, but the overwhelming benefits of using one are tremendous. Here’s everything you need to know about why they rock, from the different types for partner play to which ones could wreck your sex toys, and more.

Are all lubes the same?

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There are many types of lubes to choose from. (Who knew?)

“[Lube] isn’t only for problem situations,” says Carol Queen, author, sexologist, and founder of the Center for Sex and Culture. “In fact, virtually any genital touch can be made more pleasurable and sexy with lubricant.”

When it comes to lube, silicone, water-based, hybrid, and oil are the four main types. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Silicone: Hypoallergenic and great for those with sensitive skin, silicone lubricants offer a higher viscosity (meaning they’re really slippery) compared to other types. Because they’re compatible with all condoms and long-lasting, a little bit can often go a long way and you won’t have to constantly pull away from your partner to keep reapplying. You can also use them while you're in the shower, as the lube won't rinse away as soon as you're under water. If that sounds great, that’s because silicone lubes really are—however, they have a few downsides. Specifically, these lubes are known to leave stains on fabric that are impossible to get out. You also want to avoid using them with silicone sex toys, as the combination can cause toys to slowly degrade by creating small fissures in the material, which over time can become traps for bacteria and other nasty stuff you probably don’t want near your privates.

  • Water-based: Silicone lubes practically eliminate friction. But sometimes, Queen points out, a bit of friction is what you want, as it can add to the intensity between you and your partner (or between you and your toy or fingers)—and that’s when you might consider a water-based lube. The best water-based lubes offer a soft cushioning feel against impact but still allow for a bit of friction, so you can feel more sensation. They're also water-soluble, which means cleaning up is a breeze. Even better, they’re compatible with all condoms and, unlike silicone lubes, water-based options are completely safe to use on all toys. While some water-based lubes last a long time, cheaper selections—often made with glycerin, which causes that tacky, gelatinous substance I described earlier—will dry out quickly and leave behind an annoying residue that’s not always conducive to getting your groove on. For those who have sensitive skin who are looking for a "natural" alternative, aloe vera is a common main ingredient in many popular water-based lubes.

  • Hybrid: Wish there was a lube that combined all the stuff that makes silicone great, but won’t damage your toys or leave behind a bunch of telltale stains on your sheets? Say hello to hybrid lubes that, in theory, are like getting the best of both worlds. Formulated with a water base and a small amount of silicone, this type of lubricant is safe to use with condoms and toys alike. In a lot of ways, they’re the most versatile option, but before you jump on Team Hybrid, it’s crucial to note that while they glide on creamy and silk-like, they’re not as softening as a top-shelf, water-based lubricant, nor do they last as long as silicones do. In that sense, it’s like getting a toned-down version of each.

  • Oil: At first glance, there’s a lot to love about oil lubes. They last even longer than silicone, they make everything feel ultra-slick and moisturized, and they’re cheap as hell. In a pinch, you could head straight to your pantry and pull out some coconut oil or EVOO and call it a day. That said, oil lubes are also the most problematic of the bunch. It’s very important to know that oil and latex condoms are not compatible, so if you’re practicing safer sex, you should skip it completely, as the combination can lead to condom breakage. Like silicone, oil can leave huge stains on fabrics. According to Queen, this type of lube also isn't safe to use on rubber toys. Some studies suggest that oil lubes may even increase the risk of bacterial vaginosis, and if you’re using that same coconut oil or EVOO that’s been in your pantry for a long time, you could expose yourself or a partner to germs—so be careful with pantry raiding, or just buy some dedicated oil for your bedroom pursuits.

When to use lube

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From massages to oral sex, lube can enrich almost any intimate encounter—not just penetrative play.

Not all lubes are created equal and there’s no one right way to use them—it all comes down to your personal preferences. According to Engle, there’s no such thing as too much lube, either. “When I’m having sex or recommending [lube] to clients, I’m like, you want to be on a water slide,” she says.

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While it’s true that certain lubes—specifically, water-based and hybrids—are the best option when you’re using toys, Queen says that if you use condoms over a silicone dildo or similar product, you could use a silicone lube without damaging the toy. This is because the condom functions as a barrier. Still, if you want to err on the side of caution, just use a water-based or hybrid option.

For vaginal sex, lube makes it more comfortable by adding more wetness. While the vagina does produces its own natural lubrication to prevent chafing and irritation during penetration, for any number of reasons—stress, low estrogen, taking certain medications (like antihistamines and antidepressants), menopause and, yes, sometimes lack of arousal—it may not be enough, which is when using a lube can be beneficial.

During anal play, a silicone or thick water-based lube is essential because unlike the vagina, the anus and rectum aren’t naturally self-lubricating. Anal walls are thinner than vaginal ones, so a lube can be an important way to reduce pain for the receiver and minimize the likelihood of tears or abrasions inside the rectum. Some lubes, like Cleanstream Relax Desensitizing Lube, are specifically intended for backdoor play and formulated with a relaxant (in this case, lidocaine), which may minimize discomfort. Be aware, however, that too much exposure to a relaxant might mask pain and other important reactions that your body is experiencing for a reason.

Lube might seem like it’s only good for penetrative sex, but Engle and Queen agree that’s not the case at all. Rather, it can enrich almost any intimate encounter. For instance, an oil lube can be excellent for massages and other forms of outercourse. During oral sex, a flavored water-based lubricant could make the experience more enjoyable for the giver. (Although Engle points out that flavored lubes can cause irritation for vulva-owners and potentially lead to bacterial vaginosis, so it may be safer to only use on penises.)

If you’ve ever been curious about temperature play, warming lubes—which are typically water-based—deliver extra tingles and could be a great introduction. In some cases, warming lubes can provide too much direct stimulation, so Engle recommends doing a patch test (like on the back of your hand) before applying one on the vulva or similarly sensitive area.

How to shop for lube

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Experts agree, there's no such thing as "too much" lube.

One of my favorite ways to shop for lube is to see how it feels on my fingertips first. Many brick-and-mortar adult stores have tester bottles on the shelves, so you can feel before you buy.

But adult shops aren’t the only places to purchase personal lubricant—drug stores like CVS and Walgreens have a big selection, too. In the U.S. specifically, Engle notes that there are good natural lubricants (containing ingredients you can pronounce), so you’re not just stuck with only one or two options to pick from.

Ordering online is easy, affordable, and offers privacy, and you can check out reviews of others’ experiences beforehand in lieu of tester bottles at stores. Knowing what’s actually in the lube—and what people are saying about it—can save you time, money, and tons of hassle.

When you’re reading labels, try to avoid lubes with chemical additives like glycerin (common in warming lubes), petroleum, or parabens. Queen points out that these are often intended as preservatives to extend the longevity of a product on the shelf, but can lead to skin irritation. “These are generally [in] water-based lubes, but there are also many water-based products that do not have these kinds of ingredients,” she says.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction to lube aren’t fun and can vary, but “often present with discomfort, itching, redness and/or swelling,” adds Queen. Lubes with glycerin—which has sugar in it—have been known to alter a vagina’s pH levels, increasing the chance of yeast infections. In those instances, stop using the lube immediately and reach out to a trusted healthcare professional.

A final consideration: Lubes can expire. But how can you tell? Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t come with a sell-by date, but Queen says they can last for a few years on average. “If you [do] have a use-by date on your lubricant, I would not recommend using it long after the fact.” If you’re feeling unsure, test it before use. Queen recommends pouring some out onto a paper towel or your palm and looking for signs of discoloration. Strange odors may also be a tip-off that it’s time to toss yours out.

The best lubes to try right now

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A lube for all seasons, and most importantly, all kinds of sex.

With hundreds of options to choose from, buying lube can be overwhelming. If you just want to skip to checkout, here are some of the best you can purchase based on type, according to the experts:

  • Silicone: Queen is a fan of Uberlube, which has a reputation for lasting forever. It's more expensive than most lubricants, but a little bit can go a long way. As someone who’s used it before, I’d say it’s worth the extra cost. It also has a pump top, which might not seem like an edge-maker, but trust me, it makes a world of difference when it comes to dispensing any kind of lube, as it minimizes the likelihood of spills (and in the case of silicone lube, stains). Swiss Navy is a budget-friendly option that's good, too, and will make your skin glisten. Even better, you can find this one at most drugstores.

  • Water-based: For water-based lubes, there are a few standouts. Engle recommends Pjur Aqua because it gives “that good old water-slide smooth.” Queen likes Sutil, which has a thicker, more cushiony glide to it, making it a stellar choice for anal play involving toys. It doesn't last as long as a silicone lube would but, in my experience, Sutil comes pretty close to recreating that effect, and for acts involving a lot of continuous impact (like pegging), it could be very useful.

  • Hybrid: If you’re searching for a hybrid lube that’s affordable and readily available at a lot of stores, Sliquid Silk is the way to go. This creamy lube has a water base and contains just 12 percent silicone. When I tried it, I felt that it dried out too quickly for partnered penetration, but for toys—particularly clitoral stimulators—it's a nice option and doesn't leave behind a tacky residue. Another great pick, according to Queen, is Please Cream, which has a velvety texture and is glycerin- and paraben-free.

  • Oil: Oil-based lubes can make outercourse feel incredible, and specifically, coconut oil is one of the most popular. Rather than use your household coconut oil (which experts do not recommend, as it increases the risk of infection), you’re better off having one that's dedicated just for throwdowns. Opt for unrefined coconut oil, as it has no added chemicals or toxins and doesn’t undergo a bleaching process, whereas refined coconut oil does.

  • Aloe vera-based: For anyone with sensitive skin, an aloe vera-based lubricant like Aloe Cadabra can be terrific. Made with 95 percent aloe vera, this lube is a water-based variant. You can get it "natural," which is flavorless, but it also comes in a few flavors like pina colada and vanilla, which wouldn't be ideal for vaginal penetration but can make oral sex a blast. Another personal favorite of mine is the Lelo Personal Moisturizer, which always leaves my skin feeling hydrated. If you grab this, I recommend springing for the five-ounce option, as it comes in a sleek container with a pump that makes it easy to dispense. (The 2.5-ounce pick comes in a tube, which unfortunately tends to leak.)

  • Warming lubricants: Pay close attention to the ingredients in any kind of temperature-enhancing lube (i.e., a warming or cooling lubricant) before you buy one—glycerin is often a main ingredient. However, this Ocean Sensuals gel from Dreambrands is the rare exception, as it’s glycerin-free and formulated with primrose oil and menthol to give users a zesty sensation, like a tickle of cool water. If you’re wondering which to avoid, Engle says KY Warming Jelly is her least favorite lube because it’s known to be harsh on sensitive skin.

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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