Sex is a big seller in the advertising world; yet, you don’t see any ads for vaginal lubricants. It’s not exactly a subject discussed at the dining room table. In fact, it’s a little embarrassing to speak of at all, for lubricants are a private matter. Maybe that’s why you haven’t heard much about lubricants’ potential dangers. Keep in mind that lubricants are profitable — a $219 million market in the United States alone — so you’re likely only to hear how helpful they are (such as in facilitating condom use for safe sex).
But, think about it. Lubricants contain an array of chemicals that we put into our bodies because we assume they’re safe. The specific chemicals themselves might be safe when used for jet fuel or brake fluid, but what about for personal use? The vagina and anus, like your eyes and the inside of your mouth, are composed of mucous membranes. These are semi-permeable tissues that don’t have a protective layer like your skin does. Also, vaginal and rectal tissues absorb chemicals and drugs as easily as those delivered by mouth. In other words, you shouldn’t put anything in your vagina or rectum that you wouldn’t consider eating.
Below, I describe a few of the many chemicals found in common lubricants, enough to scare you(but, don’t get depressed — I’ll also recommend a good alternative to commercially available lubricants). I’m only listing chemicals found in at least two of three popular lubricants: KY Jelly, Vagi-Guard, and Top Care Lubricating Jelly. Most of this information comes from the Material Safety Data Sheets, which provide information on substances and identify hazardous chemicals and are found on-line.
Methyparaben: is a preservative and fungicide found in all three products that’s used to extend shelf-life. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved it for use in food, the chemical disrupts hormones because it mimics estrogen, which could feed breast tumors. It is easily absorbed by the body, and can be detected in urine and blood.
Hydroxyethylcellulose: found in KY and Top Care, is created by combining dimethyl sulfoxide and formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a highly toxic cancer-causing agent that damages the body’s neurological connectors. It is often found in paint and jet fuel. Used as an antibacterial agent, it can harm the immune system.
Sodium Hydroxide: found in KY and Top Care, is known more commonly by another name: lye. The Data Sheet says: “Avoid all contact!” It reacts violently with acid and corrodes metals. While it is true that lye is used to make soap, no lye remains in finished soap if it is made correctly.
Propylene Glycol: found in KY and Vagi-Guard, is an ingredient in brake fluid and antifreeze. Users are warned that it can be a skin irritant and can cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage.
Benzoic Acid: found in KY and Vagi-Guard, is toxic to rats. Chronic effects on humans include damage to lungs, nervous system, and mucous membranes, which is where it is placed when used as a lubricant.
Chlorhexidine Gluconate: found in KY and Top Care, is toxic to lungs and mucous membranes and can cause organ damage with prolonged exposure.
It’s possible that the concentration levels of these chemicals are low enough to be safe for consumers. Unfortunately, it is hard for consumers to assess this and there is far more we don’t know about these chemicals than we do know. The vast majority of chemicals used in personal care products have not been tested extensively in humans, so we take the safety of long-term exposure to them on faith.
Basically, regulations have not changed since 1938, when the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gave the FDA the authority to oversee cosmetics along with food and drugs. Recent legislative efforts to strengthen FDA oversight of personal care products have failed. For example, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the 2015 Personal Care Products Safety Act, which required cosmetic companies to register with and submit ingredient statements to the FDA. It also required the FDA to review five cosmetic ingredients annually. While a step in the right direction, the bill (which didn’t pass) fell short of giving consumers as much safety protection as possible.
Consequently, U.S. consumers must remain vigilant about safety when selecting personal care products. Read the ingredients of any product that touches your skin, then check that chemical’s Material Safety Data Sheet. Another good resource is the Environmental Working Group, which rates cosmetics (http://ewg.org/skindeep; it also has a user-friendly app that lists personal care ingredients). Your choice of personal care products might change.
While “natural” lubricants may seem like a better choice, they too contain questionable chemicals. For example, among other chemicals, Aqua Lube Natural contains sodium benzoate and citric acid. Together, these chemicals form benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. Blossom Organic, another natural lubricant, contains ethythexylglycerin, which can be a skin irritant and has not been adequately tested.
Rather than putting harsh chemicals on or in your body, I recommend using coconut oil as a lubricant. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, but melts at body temperature. You can separate the solid oil into teaspoon size amounts for easy use. Keep it in the refrigerator, as it will spoil over time, especially in the summer. What’s good about coconut oil is that it is a food, so it cannot harm you like other questionable chemicals might. Coconut oil is safe, so should be a preferable choice to use as a lubricant.
Article written by: Sandra Marea Folzer
Sandra Marea Folzer, Ph.D. is a retired professor and licensed psychologist. She is a 22-year breast cancer survivor; she is in good health and runs and races most weekends.