To answer questions about the safety of lubricants you need to remember Сhemistry lessons and understand the composition, then you can quickly study any list of ingredients and decide whether you need it or not.
When I started writing this text, I thought to confine myself to the analysis of individual controversial components. However, both of my experts unanimously stated that it is necessary to talk about the composition in terms of two main parameters – osmolality and pH (hydrogenous marker of acid-alkalinity balance – Ed.), since solvents and other functional components affect them. In turn, its safety for our health depends on the indicators of osmolality and pH of an intimate lubricant.
Important! Parameters such as pH and osmolality are only relevant for water-based products. Accordingly, further we will focus on water (hybrid) lubricants.
In order not to harm the natural environment, vaginal lubrication should have a pH in the range of vaginal acidity – 3.5-4.5, and anal – 6-7. The approximate pH value can be measured independently using indicator litmus strips.
Armed with a young chemist's kit (stripes + color matching plate), I did an amateur research on my water-based lubricants. After checking there appeared even more questions. None of the vaginal lubricants (i.e. not claimed to be anal) showed the correct acidic pH! Some of the strips have practically not changed color (neutral pH), some deviate altogether towards the alkaline side.
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Maybe I got such a result because of a poor-quality test or I messed up with it somewhere? Here is how the chemist commented on the situation.
Test strips are mainly used for aqueous solutions. Lubrication is a more complex colloidal system, and when measuring its pH in this way, there can really be errors. The likelihood that you have a fake test tripe cannot be excluded either, but globally the result, when none of a dozen market samples has an acidic pH , is not something out of the ordinary. According to State Standard, the allowed pH range of a lubricant is wider and the product is registered certification institutions are of little concern about this. So, the situation is quite real, but there is still no need to talk about 100% reliability.
This is the number of all dissolved particles per unit of water, or, in a simpler way, concentration. The surface of the mucous membrane constantly maintains the balance of osmolality (about 380 mOsm / kg), therefore this parameter is very, very important for lubricants.
– hypoosmotic (their osmolality value is lower than that of body cells);
– hyperosmotic (osmolality is much higher);
– isoosmotic (close to the osmolality of the mucosa).
A 2008 study published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases showed that hypoosmotic lubrication (32 mOsm/kg) led to dryness and insufficient secretion and hyperosmotic (> 2000 mOsm / kg) provoked tissue damage and increased the susceptibility of mucous membranes to infections. Correct isoosmotic lubrication (316 mOsm / kg) did not cause any changes.
Iso-osmotic lubricants with an osmolality value of about 380 mOsm / kg are safe. Values of up to 1200 mOsm / kg are allowed.
The problem is that manufacturers, with very few exceptions, do not measure the osmolality value. Few people indicate the pH of products either, at the maximum they will write “pH-balanced”, and it can mean anything. In this regard, the World Health Organization has tested some lubricants against these indicators. Spoiler alert: The results are not encouraging.
As mentioned above, the osmolality index is influenced by some functional substances of the formula, in particular glycerol. The latter has a bad property to increase the osmolality of the lubricant.
In the same scientific article fr om Sexually Transmitted Diseases, the authors conclude that the glycerol content should not exceed 2-2.5% in order for the osmolality to be ideal. The permissible rate by WHO is up to 8%.
But in such an amount, it will most likely not give the desired slip, therefore, the consumer properties of the product will suffer.
Now many lubricant manufacturers are trying to replace glycerin with other glycols: butylene glycol, propanediol, propylene glycol etc. They also contribute to the osmolality of the final product, but detailed studies have not yet been carried out, which means that we can only make an empirical comparison. For example, this article presents the results of experimental measurements of the osmolality of 12 market samples. Judging by the data provided, propylene glycol is in the “red zone”: the osmolality of the products in which it is contained (especially in combination with glycerin) is simply off scale. As for the glycerin itself and its other substitutes, the indicators range fr om acceptable to high, depending on the percentage of the substance input.
Unfortunately, with only the composition of the lubricant in hand it is impossible to calculate its osmolality. And conscientious manufacturers should determine this indicator experimentally in laboratory conditions and put it on the label. Have you seen a lot of such products? The question is, of course, rhetorical.
Doubtful things which are ubiquitous in intimate products. Some, by the way, have long been rehabilitated, which means that you should not be afraid of them.
Glycerin (Glycerin) – humectant component present in most water-based lubricants. If you see glycerin in the first place of the composition, it means that there is a lot of it, and it is dangerous to take such a lubricant.
Regarding the “thrush”: glycerin can really provoke the activity of yeast-like fungi, so if you are prone to candidiasis, it is better to switch to glycerin-free lubricants.
Propylene glycol (Propylene Glycol). Performs the same function as glycerin. In a bundle, they give a long glide, coupled with off-scale osmolality.
Parabens (Methylparaben, Ethylparaben) are preservatives. There is nothing criminal in the use of methylparaben and ethylparaben on the mucous membrane, they were rehabilitated. The rest of the parabens are more controversial, so it is best to avoid them in all products.
Silicones (Dimethicone, Dimethiconol, Cyclohexasiloxane). They are hypoallergenic, non-toxic, do not damage tissues, do not block pores and do not have a hormonal effect. Silicones do not need preservation, so silicone lubricants are generally cleaner (some preservatives are potential irritants).
Among the silicone components there is a suspicious one – cyclopentasiloxane (Cyclopentasiloxane ). The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) in its report noted that cyclopentasiloxane may contain traces of cyclotetrasiloxane, which is classified in the EU as toxic to the reproductive system. Given the ability of tissues to absorb substances and the huge number of blood vessels that penetrate the walls of the vagina, the chemists recommends refraining from using lubricants with cyclopentasiloxane on an ongoing basis.
Triethanolamine (Triethanolamine) – acidity regulator. Has a concentration lim it that is not exceeded if the product ends up on the store shelf (filter of the certification body). However, triethanolamine adjusts the pH to the alkaline side, which is not good for microflora balance.
Phenoxyethanol (Phenoxyethanol) – a preservative and an antibacterial component. Sometimes it can cause a burning sensation (this is the nature of the substance), therefore, those with increased sensitivity better avoid it. Generally, it is safe.
Methylisothiazolinone (Methylisothiazolinone) – a preservative. Code “red”: there should be no thiazolinones in lubricants (strong allergens)!
Polyquaterniums (Polyquaternium) are a group of film-forming polymers. They cling to cell membranes and gradually destroy it. With regular use, there is a risk of earning unpleasant consequences.
Composition for the “top five”
I asked the experts to speculate on what the best lubricant should contain in terms of composition.
As for the formula of intimate lubricants (and indeed all products for personal hygiene, beauty and pleasure), the chemist recommends adhering to the rule “the lesser, the better”. A couple of clear functional assets and a simple studied base are the key to avoiding unpleasant surprises even when using a new product.
Each base is good in its own way, and, based on the purpose, in any profile – water, silicone or oil – you can find your ideal lubricant.
– ideal osmolality ≈ 380 mOsm / kg (statistical error is possible, and natural lubrication slightly changes this parameter depending on the cycle). Values up to 1200 mOsm / kg are allowed;
– pH of vaginal lubrication – 3.5-4.5;
– pH of anal lubrication – 6-7.
The chemist is not intimidated by glycerin if the manufacturer has indicated the pH and osmolality, but Victoria prefers propanediol (Propanediol) among glycols. The latter has high moisturizing properties, but as a component it is more expensive, and, accordingly, this will affect the final cost of the product.
The choice of gelling agents is small. On hydroxyethylcellulose (Hydroxyethylcellulose) made of 90% of the products (as it is frequently used in studies to create a basic control parameter in the study of the composition of lubricants). Alternatively, some manufacturers use algin (Algin), guar (Guar gum) and xanthan gum (Xanthan gum). Products that contain them are more expensive, and you need to pay attention to the pH.
Among the assets, look for gluconolactone (Gluconolactone) and lactic acid (Lactic Acid) physiological for the microflora of the vagina, as well as aloe gel (Aloe Vera), hyaluronic acid (Sodium Hyaluronate), phytoestrogens (usually found in soy derivatives).
A good alternative to water-based lubricants, as they do not need to steam for osmolality and pH. After experts dispelled my doubts about silicone lubricants, my hand began to reach for them. Of course, toys don't care, but for sex with penetration – yes, and yes again. In short, silicones are good in all respects, except for the sometimes presence of cyclopentasiloxane (personal fear of the chemist, in a year or two scientists can rehabilitate him, then we will reconsider the attitude). Of the assets, natural oils are often added to moisturize the mucous membrane. It is good if there is no individual intolerance.
Most often found as a part of coconut oil, shea and cocoa oils. There are security advantages here, but there are also many disadvantages. Allergy to natural ingredients happens even more often than to synthetic ones.
Can I use regular oil instead of grease? The gynecologist gives the go-ahead. Basic vegetable oil (coconut, shea, olive, rapeseed) does not disturb the microflora, does not damage the epithelium, moisturizes, and is suitable for all types of sex. Contraindications include allergy to the product itself and greasy stains on bedding, latex condoms.
But mineral oil, vaseline and other refined products are not physiological and are categorically unsuitable for sex, including in terms of physical and chemical parameters. It is also best to avoid them as part of purchased lubricants. And for heaven's sake – no Johnson's Baby Oil!
The main insight that I caught while working on this article is that we desperately need a tougher filtration of intimate cosmetics. Yes, the certification institutions will not let the frankly dangerous (read “prohibited”) components pass, but the same indicator of osmolality and its compliance with the standards is not checked or controlled by anyone. This is left to the discretion of manufacturers, who are in no hurry to carry out the necessary tests and put their results on the packaging of their products.
Now we are in a situation wh ere manufacturers of intimate cosmetics do not pay enough attention to the parameters of pH and osmolality that are super important for women's health. Consumer properties are in priority: viscosity, slipperiness, drying speed. Well, all the negative consequences from the use of the same hyperosmotic lubricants can be attributed to individual intolerance. And not everyone will associate their intimate problems with a lubricant especially if the latter has a good composition.
Perhaps, if we become more informed, conscious, start asking brands uncomfortable questions about the safety of their products, and most importantly, demand confirmation of words by the results of examinations and certificates, companies will be more interested in producing intimate cosmetics that are truly safe for women's health.
From the Editor: we asked for a comment on this topic, obstetrician-gynecologist Tatyana Tsoi and thank her for her detailed answer.
There are two types of oils.
1) Synthetic (refined products) – this is paraffin, vaseline, mineral oil. They can envelop the skin, thereby interfering and hindering permeability and its functional properties. Petroleum-based ingredients can also contain contaminants that can cause health problems, including cancer, and can also degrade condom latex and create an unfavorable vaginal environment that is vulnerable to infection. It is undesirable to use it on an ongoing basis as a lubricant, since the vaginal mucosa has a tremendous absorption capacity: 60% of what you put on it gets into your body.
2) Organic – vegetable origin: coconut, cocoa, shea, almond, grape seed, peach, sea buckthorn, etc. These oils contain many useful substances – vitamins, trace elements, antioxidants, fatty acids, etc. themselves are natural preservatives, which is a plus for their safety.
Back in 350 BC. e. in ancient Greece, olive oil was used as a lubricant. Today, many vegetable oils are the basis for vaginal suppositories in isolation (oil only) or in combination with drugs, in addition to the properties of a natural preservative, they have a moisturizing and / or regenerating effect. For example, peach or sea buckthorn oil heals well erosive processes on the mucous membrane, coconut oil has an antifungal effect.
The question of the negative impact on the microflora is controversial. On the one hand, high-quality vegetable oils of pure production should not have a similar effect; on the other hand, it is very difficult to guarantee the absence of chemical impurities, namely, they can negatively affect the vaginal mucosa and microflora.
If the oil is refined, it has undergone multi-stage purification, which violated the natural composition and changed its chemical properties, this can adversely affect its use and the effect on the woman's body. For men, in this case, it is easier, since the skin comes into contact with oils, whose absorption properties are much lower than the mucous membrane.
There are no pores in the vagina, so oils cannot clog them. There are pores on the skin of the vulva, but the formation of comedones in it can occur regardless of the use of oil lubricants, since there are also sebaceous glands that secrete sebum.
Any component of the lubricant can cause allergies, not necessarily vegetable oil. The occurrence of an allergic reaction depends on the body's hypersensitivity to a certain substance, which can be of both synthetic and organic origin.
Should I use exclusively oil-based lubricants?
– from the method of contraception: oils destroy latex condoms;
– from individual characteristics: if your skin is initially prone to increased fat content and the formation of comedones , then oil lubrication can aggravate this, and allergic reactions are also possible;
– on the properties of oils: for example, black cumin oil has a pronounced astringent effect, which is more harmful than useful for a healthy and intact mucous membrane;
– on the quality of production and purity of the product.
The presence of glycerin can damage mucosal cells and provoke the development of thrush (it is a breeding ground for Candida).
Parabens can irritate the skin and mucous membranes and cause allergies.
Sugar – a frequent ingredient in aromatic and edible lubricants – disrupts vaginal pH and is a breeding ground for fungus.
Phenoxyethanol is a chemical preservative used as a fixative in perfumery, insect repellents, and cellulose acetate solvent. This chemical is classified as moderately hazardous by the Working Group on Environmental Protection. Skin irritation can be a side effect of toxic poisoning. High levels of phenoxyethanol can harm the reproductive system, weaken the immune system and compromise the nervous system in newborns.
Propylene glycol is a potentially hazardous substance prohibited from use by many natural / organic cosmetics certification systems. Propylene glycol, like glycerin, is a key factor in high osmolality. Symptoms include burning and pain, irritation and allergic reactions. The lubricants are often incorporated into the propylene glycol. This substance is used as a solvent and preservative in food and tobacco, as well as the main component used in e-cigarettes.
Synthetic fragrances – most often they cause allergic reactions. They contain chemicals such as phthalates, which have been linked to decreased sperm count in men, reproductive defects in a developing male fetus (when a mother is exposed to phthalates during pregnancy).
Alcohol – causes dryness and irritation, but is often used as a preservative.
Chlorhexidine is an antibacterial substance found in antiseptics. Chlorhexidine, with frequent use, kills all healthy bacteria, disrupting the natural balance of the vaginal microflora, contributes to irritation and increases the risk of developing infectious diseases.
Editor's note: According to TR CU 009/2011 “On the safety of perfumery and cosmetic products” (Intimate cosmetics relates to perfumes and cosmetics), pH of and osmolality are not stated in the list of mandatory labeling, so these figures are absent on the bottles with lubricants.