Women, and their partners, tend to think of vaginal dryness ‘as a sexual defect. But how lubricated we get naturally during intercourse does not always indicate whether or not we are sexually aroused, says Dr. Christine Derzko, a gynecologist and reproductive endocrinologist with St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
When aroused, the vagina becomes engorged with blood, triggering glands to release a clear, translucent fluid that blood vessels carry through the vaginal walls, coating them with lubrication. This process is linked with estrogen; lower levels result in less fluid production and thinning of the vaginal walls, making a woman more likely to experience discomfort or pain during intercourse.
‘When a woman doesn’t have as much estrogen, the sexual arousal’lubrication ‘process tends to happen to a lesser degree regardless of actual arousal,’ says Debbie Herbenick, research scientist and associate director at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion (CSHP) at Indiana University. This means that women may be susceptible to vaginal dryness any time estrogen levels are low: during breastfeeding, perimenopause and menopause; before and after ovulation; or even when taking certain medications, including some antidepressants and the birth control pill. Smoking can also cause vaginal dryness. (If you are experiencing chronic dryness’not just during sex’an over-the-counter or prescription vaginal moisturizer may be called for; ask your doctor for more information.)
Because the vagina is highly absorbent, some women have concerns over whether certain compounds in personal lubricants may be toxic. It is up to a manufacturer to meet Health Canada‘s requirements for safety in cosmetics, including avoiding ingredients flagged on its Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. Our experts say there are no real concerns, other than allergies a woman or her partner may have to an ingredient.
Research at CSHP has shown that 62 percent of women between ages 18 and 60 have used a personal lubricant. ‘When women use one, they do report enhanced sexual pleasure,’ says Herbenick. Sue McGarvie, an Ottawa sex therapist, advises: ‘Really, any time sex is uncomfortable, women should be using one.’ Adds Amy Sedgwick, co-owner of sex boutique Red Tent Sisters in Toronto: ‘Increasingly, women are buying lubricants for sheer enhanced enjoyment, and for use with sex toys.’ Times for lubricants may also include sex after a bath, quickie sex (lack of sufficient foreplay) or sex with a ‘well-endowed’ partner.
Since so many different kinds of lubricants are available in drugstores and specialty sex boutiques, we’ve pulled together ‘a handy guide with the help of experts ‘Herbenick, McGarvie and Sedgwick, as well as Andrea Dobbs, retail manager of Vancouver sexual health store Womyns’ Ware.
KEY INGREDIENTS Dimethicone, dimethiconol and cyclomethicone’silicone-based polymers that provide the slippery texture
COMMON BRANDS Better Sex Essentials, Pjur Eros, Shunga Toko
MERITS Silicone lubricants are hypoallergenic, as they are not absorbed by the body. ‘They stay slippery longer, so are ideal for ‘marathon sex’ or sex in water,’ says Dobbs. Most are safe for use with condoms; just make sure it says so on the package.
DOWNSIDES These lubricants can’t be used with silicone toys, as silicone binds to silicone, which can damage the toy. They may require a soap that’s more astringent ‘to wash them off. Though not hazardous ‘if ingested, they are not recommended for oral sex as they may leave an unpleasant film in the mouth. Check the label to see ‘if a product will stain sheets.
KEY INGREDIENTS In addition to water, may include glycerin, synthetic or vegetable-based propylene glycol (an organic alcohol that creates the slippery texture and maintains moisture)
COMMON BRANDS With glycerin: Astroglide, Embrace, Hathor, K-Y, Liquid Silk, Maximus, Probe, Shunga Toko. Without glycerin: Better Sex Essentials, Slippery Stuff
MERITS These are the most common, widely available lubricants. They’re safe for use with condoms and sex toys, and wash off the body easily. ‘The great thing about water-based lubes is that they come in a variety of consistencies ranging from silky liquid to a cushion of gel, and they can be used with all types of toys,’ says Dobbs. They also come in flavours and with warming properties.
DOWNSIDES Water-based lubricants can dry out during use (some users complain lubes with glycerin can be sticky), so you may need to reapply them. Water-based lubricants are readily absorbed by the body, and the glycerin compounds may cause skin irritation or yeast infection in those who are prone to this (as may flavouring or warming ingredients). Finally, some women and experts worry about being exposed to parabens in water-based lubes. If you are concerned, talk to your doctor about what is right for you.
KEY INGREDIENTS May include aloe vera (a gel from the leaf of the aloe plant); flaxseed oil (which contains fatty acids and lends a slippery texture); vegetable-based propylene glycol (a natural moisturizer or humectant that can be made from vege-tables such as cabbage and corn, as well as canola and safflower oils)
COMMON BRANDS Aloe Cadabra, Blossom Organics, Good Clean Love, Hathor, Yes
MERITS Most of these products claim to be organic and free of preservatives such as parabens. A few organic brands come in sperm-friendly formulations (such as Yes Baby) with suitable pH balance for sperm.
DOWNSIDES These are typically available only in specialty sex stores and health food stores, and may be pricey. Organic claims are not regulated by Health Canada. And remember: ‘Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it will not cause irritation, depending on individual sensitivities and allergies,’ adds Sedgwick.
Lubricants from the kitchen
HOUSEHOLD PRODUCTS Egg whites, flaxseed oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil, olive oil, petroleum jelly, shea butter
MERITS ‘A natural, organic cooking oil like olive oil or a nut oil is a suitable option for women who experience irritation with other lubricants or who are trying to get pregnant,’ says McGarvie. ‘This is appealing ‘to some people because they feel it is safe ‘to put in their vagina since they also ingest ‘it as food.’
DOWNSIDES Never use an oil-based lube with latex condoms’it will degrade and weaken the quality of latex. Oil-based lubes and petroleum jelly can also weaken diaphragms. Also, these oils will stain sheets.
This article was originally titled "Personal lubricants" in the Summer 2011 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.