People talk about water-based lubricants, silicone-based lubricants, and the other more esoteric options, but they rarely discuss whether you actually want artificial sweeteners applied to your squishy bits or what the heck a polysorbate is (Are they more affectionate than monosorbates? Are they a special dessert item for after group sex?)
Below, you’ll learn about the 10 most common types of chemicals found in sexual lubricants, what they’re used for, and why you may or may not want to look out for them on your product labels.
1. Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone, Dimethiconol
These are the ingredients that put the “silicone” in silicone based lube. Silicones are polymers – chemical chains with oxygen and silicone atoms as their backbone. Depending on their length, their other chemical components, and their overall structure, silicones will have different physical and chemical properties. However, the main reason that they are used in sexual lubricants is that they are generally both slippery and considered to be relatively biologically inert.
In recent years, there has been some evidence that silicones may not be as completely innocuous as was originally thought, including a few medical studies that have shown an association between implanted silicone devices and inflammation or other immune responses. Why does this matter when talking about sexual lubricants? Contrary to popular belief, silicones can actually be absorbed through the skin, although how well they are absorbed depends on their size.
Still, in the grand scheme of thing, you probably shouldn’t worry that much about silicone lube being a health risk. Silicones are generally considered to be safe inside the body, and over the years they have been incorporated into numerous medical devices used both inside and outside of the body as well as in many different types of cosmetic products - including hand lotions and conditioners as well as sexual lubricants.
2. Cellulose Polymer
Think the word cellulose sounds familiar? That’s because it’s the technical term for the main component in plant fiber, and it’s what paper is made of. Cellulose polymers are chains of cellulose molecules linked together, and they can serve as vegetarian substitutes for gelatin. In sexual lubricants, they are used as thickeners which can also help form the structure of gels.
3. Disodium EDTA
Disodium ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid (disodium EDTA) has numerous uses as a food and cosmetic additive. It can be used as a thickening agent to adjust the viscosity of products. It can be used as a stabilizer to keep other ingredients from cross-reacting with chemicals in the environment. It can also be used as a preservative and to resist discoloration.
Although the FDA generally considers disodium EDTA safe for cosmetic use, and even allows its use in certain food products, it should not be consumed in large quantities. In addition, it is worth noting that disodium EDTA can also make other chemicals in a product more likely to penetrate the skin. Therefore, if you’re very chemically sensitive, lubricants with EDTAs may be something to avoid. It’s possible that, even though the EDTA itself is not well absorbed, it could make you more susceptible to a reaction from one of the lubricant’s other components.
4. Glycerin / Glyceryl Stearate
Glycerin and its derivative glyceryl stearate are emollients that are used as both moisturizers and skin conditioners. They make products feel smooth and silky against the skin and can also help the various oil and water soluble components of a lubricant stay well mixed together. Both glycerin and glyceryl stearate are widely considered to be safe and the FDA even allows them to be used in food products.
For those individuals who are organic minded, it is worth noting that these chemicals can be derived from plants as well as manufactured artificially. Just because an “all natural” product says it contains glycerin doesn’t mean that it’s lying about its green roots. While on the subject of growing things, however, it is worth noting that glycerin does have one really unfortunate characteristic – yeast cells can use it as food. That means that if you are predisposed to yeast infections, you may want to use glycerin-free lubricants. Although a glycerin-containing lubricant will not cause a yeast infection, it could make an existing one worse or even cause a sub-clinical infection to start showing symptoms.
5. Propylene Glycol
Propylene glycol is an alternative to glycerin that is derived from natural gas. It is also used as a thickening and gelling agent and, like glycerin, is an excellent emollient. Propylene glycol is generally considered to be safe, and is used not only in topical products but also in foods and drugs that are taken by mouth. Most reports of its danger are actually confusing it with similarly named chemicals, such as ethylene glycol, that are significantly more toxic. However, like disodium EDTA, propylene glycol can help other chemicals make their way into the skin. Interestingly, this property means that propylene glycol is known as a “penetration enhancer”… so if you see that on the side of your next lubricant bottle you may want to consider that it may not mean what you think it means.
6. Methyl Paraben
Methyl paraben is a preservative that is used to prevent the growth of fungi in lubricants and other cosmetic items. It is one of the most common anti-fungal agents used in personal products, and although it can be absorbed through the skin it is usually easily broken down and eliminated through the urine.
Still, this is an ingredient to watch out for. Some, but not many, people are either allergic to methyl paraben or experience non-allergic contact dermatitis from it, and such reactions are more common when it is applied to broken skin.
There are also questions about whether methyl paraben and other parabens may be linked to breast cancer growth. Although a 2008 consensus report in the International Journal of Toxicology found that these chemicals are safe, as currently used, there have been some controversial reports that parabens may have estrogenic qualities which could theoretically stimulate the growth of cancerous cells in the breast or cause problems with male reproductive function.
Phenoxyethanol, also known as ethylene glycol monophenyl ether (say that ten times fast!) is used to reduce the growth of bacteria in cosmetics. Although it is usually synthesized directly, it can also be found naturally in some products such as green tea and grapefruit.
There is some mild disagreement over exactly how safe phenoxyethanol is. Although the FDA has approved its use in cosmetic products, and it can be used in food packaging (where it could potentially contaminate the food and be ingested), it is treated with some degree of caution. Many countries, including the US, regulate the concentration of phenoxyethanol that is allowed in any given product, because there have been several animal studies that found that certain types of exposures can lead to negative health effects. Even including the results of those studies in their research, however, the FDA has repeatedly confirmed the safety of phenoxyethanol for cosmetic use.
FDA assertions aside, this may be an ingredient to avoid if you have delicate skin since there are several anecdotal reports of contact sensitivity to products containing phenoxyethanol.
8. Sodium Benzoate / Benzoic Acid
Benzoic acid and its derivative sodium benzoate are used as preservatives for both foods and cosmetics. Both chemicals can cause contact reactions and while benzoic acid can be both a skin and eye irritant, sodium benzoate is usually not a problem for skin and only mildly irritating to the eyes. Reactions to these products are more likely to appear in individuals with asthma or who frequently get hives, and exposure can make the symptoms of both conditions worse.
Citric Acid is another common preservative used in a similar way, which can also cause similar types of symptoms. In general, however, lubricants containing these preservatives will not cause noticeable problems for most people. Symptoms are usually due to exposure to the preservatives in a concentrated form rather than to exposure to products containing them.
9. Titanium Dioxide
Titanium dioxide is a white pigment that is usually used to provide either opacity or color adjustment in cosmetics. It can also be included to provide some level of sun protection. Why it’s present in so many different sexual lubricants is completely beyond my ken – since they’re generally neither white and opaque nor used in places where sun screen is really an issue. Still since titanium dioxide is used in everything from food coloring to eye-shadow, and it is generally considered to be safe for ingestion, it’s probably not something you should really worry about when you see it on an ingredient list.
10. Special Additions
In addition to the ingredients that are common to many different types of lubricants, there are also specialty lubricants which may have particular ingredients that some individuals need to look out for. Flavored lubricants, for example, often contain artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol and aspartame. Many people are sensitive or allergic to these sweeteners, and they can cause headaches, diarrhea, and other symptoms. Sorbitol is also used in some cosmetics for its humectant (moisture-holding) and thickening properties, not just for its sweet taste.
It’s All About the Chemistry
There are also other types of specialty lubricants, for example ones that are designed to either increase genital sensitivity or reduce it. Ingredients to increase sensitivity include capsicum, peppermint, and menthol. Capsicum is the chemical in hot peppers, such as jalepenos, that makes your skin burn and your eyes water when you touch it. It is a mild irritant and produces a warming sensation. Peppermint is also plant based, and provides a pleasant scent and a cooling sensation. Menthol produces warming, cooling, and tingling sensations, depending on how it is used. It is most often associated with cold and flu care rubs such as Vicks Vapo-Rub. The main thing to watch out for in “tingling” or sensitivity increasing lubricants is the fact that “tingling” is basically a mild form of skin irritation that can quickly become pain. If you choose to use one of these lubricants it’s good to start with a small amount at first, because too much could end up being extraordinarily unpleasant.
In the other direction there are, of course, numbing lubricants. Benzocaine is a topical anesthetic agent that is often used in these products. It is important to know that benzocaine can be absorbed through the skin, and excessive or inappropriate usage of products containing it can sometimes lead to toxic side effects. These side effects are rare, but there is another potentially serious problem with numbing lubricants. Pain is the body’s way of warning you that something may be wrong, and numbing agents may make you less likely to notice if damage is occurring during sex.
These are only a few of the many chemicals you will find in most commercially produced sexual lubricants. If you’re scared off by all the syllables, it is possible to find natural and organic alternatives, and some particularly crafty individuals have been known to cook up batches of lubricant themselves. Still, there are advantages to the use of chemistry – including longer “slide time”, better feel, and a reduced chance of bacterial contamination that could lead to an infection.
Oh, and for the record? Polysorbates are basically components that allow manufacturers to mock the chemical maxim that oil and water don’t mix. They help components such as essential oils stay mixed into the lubricant base instead of separating out like salad dressing. After all, when you’re having sex you want to think about keeping your partner all stirred up… not worry about making sure your lubricant is shaken.