Sexual Wellness Resource Center
For Adults over 50.

What next, now personal lubricants are not safe?

Sexual Activity
By Michael Bates, M.D.

Personal lubricants (also known as lube) are widely used to reduce vaginal and rectal friction and increase pleasure during vaginal and rectal intercourse. A small number of recent studies have shown that personal lubricants can damage cells lining both the vagina and rectum. The question is, does this damage make the body vulnerable to sexual transmitted diseases (STDs)? Not necessarily, just because a lubricant causes cell damage in the lab doesn’t mean that that has anything to do with disease transmission in humans. 

Senior Couples and LubeRichard A. Cone, a biophysicist at John Hopkins University, found that this damage is caused by a factor called osmolality. So what is osmolality? Osmolality is a measure of the concentration of all chemical materials found in blood and blood cells. Personal lubricants are hyperosmolar products, that is, they contain higher than normal concentrations of glycerin and propylene in the body’s cells. To maintain equilibrium when exposed to these products, the body releases water from the exposed cells to dilute these hyper concentrations. Since the cells most affected in the case of personal lubricants are those of the vagina and rectum, these are the cells that release water. They dry up, shrivel, and are shed, which causes micro defects in the walls of the vagina and rectum, and therefore may weaken the body’s defenses to STDs. Mice whose vaginas were exposed to high-osmolality lubricants followed by exposure to herpes simplex virus were more susceptible to herpes.

Craig W. Hendrix, clinical pharmacist also at John’s Hopkins, showed that the personal lubricant ID Glide caused significant damage to the rectal cells of human study participants. This so far has not been correlated with higher rates of HIV infection.

Other studies, ie Ashley T. Haase, University of Minnesota, have reported NO signs of cell toxicity from hyperosmolar lubricants. 

So what is the take home message regarding STDs and lubrication safety? Don’t be afraid to use a personal lubricant. If you have one partner and don’t use lubricant more than three times a day (!), your risk is minimal. If you have more than one partner and don’t use condoms you should use a lubricant that has been shown to not cause cell damage.

Studies aside, women 50 and older may have lower estrogen levels that reduce natural lubricant. Water-based sexual lubricants can reduce discomfort in these cases. Applying lubricant can also become an important part of foreplay. Visit our store to research and purchase lubes and gels