What is the difference between water-based and oil-based lubricants? Specialist Physiotherapist Amanda Savage explains

What is the difference between water-based & oil-based lubricants?

If sex is painful, personal lubricant could be life-changing.  It is useful to understand the difference between water-based lubricants and oil-based lubricants.

If you have you have never tried a personal lubricant you might not realise what you have been missing. Those inventors should get Nobel Prizes!  Forget teen movie references to ‘lube and gloves.   And pity our poor grandmothers with probably only vaseline as an option.  Personal lubricants have come an enormously long way in their formulation, effectiveness and packaging.  I hope for the sake of these unsung heroes of our intimate lives that they get a better reputation soon.

IF SEX IS PAINFUL BOTH WATER-BASED Lubricants AND OIL-BASED PERSONAL LUBRICANTS ARE WONDERFUL!

There are some reasons why you might need to use one type over another, such as if you want to use condoms (the lubricant needs to be safe with latex), or you want to use an electricity based pelvic floor gadget (which need a water-based product).  But if you are just experimenting to improve your comfort I would recommend getting some samples of both types from several manufacturers and seeing what suits you and your partner best.

Below I have explained the key differences between water-based and oil-based and there are links to the websites of some of the brands my physiotherapy clients have liked.   

WATER-BASED LUBRICANTS

  • You will probably have come across the water-based lubricants in your ‘medical’ journey.  These are used in gynaecology clinics and smear tests.
  • If you want to use one of the pelvic floor enhancing gadgets (see Gadget Girl!) then you will need to use a water-based lubricant to create a connection between the pelvic floor and the gadget.     Think of how they smeared your belly with gel to do your ultrasounds during your pregnancy. The equipment will need the same kind of contact.
  • A water-based lubricant also works well to help insert a tampon, without interfering with its absorbency.
  • You can use water-based lubricants with condoms and sex toys
  • Many people feel that water-based lubricants feel more natural, “wet”, with a realistic texture and they have no smell or taste.  They leave skin clean and residue free.
  • You can use them for instant topical relief of a dry and itchy feeling vagina and perineal area.  I have known clients keep theirs in the fridge for extra-soothingness!
  • Water-based lubricants can be effective in reducing vaginal dryness over the longer term by rehydrating the tissues (just like a facial moisturiser would do).

THINGS TO CONSIDER?

  • The most well known is the brand KY Jelly but it contains parabens and research1 has shown that the formulation of KY can irritate the sensitive vaginal tissue It can also feel sticky due to the high glycerine content.  Most chemists offer an own-brand version.  These might be well suited to a short examination procedure, or  to use with a pelvic floor exercising gadget, however for intimacy you might find that with the lower quality products can turn a bit ‘sticky’ and you should check the list of ingredients carefully avoiding glycerine, propylene glycol and parabens. 
  • They can be a bit of a devil to get from the tube to the needed body part without dripping. Related post (?!)  “applying personal lubricants without losing your momentum/dignity/sense of humour!

OIL-BASED LUBRICANTS

  • Oil-based lubricants should be formulated with natural plant-oil
  • Products made from mineral oil which is a petroleum bi-product are not suitable for vaginal use
  • Natural plant-oil based lubricants are longer lasting and can nourish dry tissue and make sex much more comfortable
  • They can be used as all-over massage oils as well as personal lubricants so their application to yours, and your partners, important bits can feel more like a natural and enjoyable part of foreplay.
  • Like the cosmetic equivalent face oils, they can protect and feed dry, intimate tissues but they cannot be re-hydrating as they do not contain water.  They can be just as soothing as water-based products and may be more comfortable if you suffer with vulvodynia or other vulval conditions

THINGS TO CONSIDER?

  • All oil based products including Vaseline, Baby Oil and Mineral Oil can affect latex and are not safe to use with condoms
  • They are not the right product to use with pelvic floor gadgets such as stimulation and biofeedback machines (these need a water-based lubricant to conduct electricity between you and the gadget).  When you are using a ‘gadget’ for exercise rather than ‘pleasure’ you may find a cheaper chemist own-brand water-based lubricant perfectly satisfactory for the purpose depending on your personal position about ingredients.
  • Water and oil-based lubricants are suitable for use with silicone toys
  • Silicone is a synthetic product which can offer longer lasting lubrication but doesn’t feel natural and cannot easily be removed with water. Silicone lubricants cannot be used with silicone sex toys but are safe to use with condoms.  They are usually well-tolerated but some people prefer to source a completely non-synthetic product, like the ones made with plant oils.
  • When trying a new lubricant it is always wise to do a patch test on the inside of your arm or wrist.

NOT ALL LUBRICANTS ARE THE SAME

As usual you get what you pay for.   The more expensive products have given attention to the quality of the ingredients and spared a thought for the packaging.  You only need a little bit each time and your intimate relationships are invaluable.  Treat yourself to something made for the purpose, in nice packaging and never run out!   

Please do let our Supported Mums readers know your preferences below and share any advice?  If you have come across a product that you think I should include in this list please let me know your recommendations?

YES®  www.yesyesyes.org

SYLK   www.sylk.co.uk

Boots own brand lubricating jelly    www.boots.com   

References:

11D. Edwards & N. Panay (2015): Treating vulvovaginal atrophy/genitourinary syndrome of menopause: how important is vaginal lubricant and moisturizer composition? Climacteric, DOI: 10.3109/13697137.2015.1124259

2World Health Organization. Use and procurement of additional lubricants for male and female condoms: WHO/UNFPA/FHI360 advisory note 2012 [7 July 2015]. Available from: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/76580/1/WHO_RHR_12.33_eng.pdf

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