Editor's Note: We at POPSUGAR recognize that people of many genders and identities have female sex organs, not just those who are women. For this particular story, we interviewed experts who generally referred to people with female sex organs as women.
Shopping for lubricant can be a little confusing, especially if you've never used it before, because there isn't just one type. Whatever you decide to choose, though, you'll want to make sure it's safe for the vagina. That's where an ob-gyn's advice can be especially helpful.
On top of tips for exactly when to use lubricant (for example, if you're experiencing vaginal dryness), your ob-gyn can advise you on which formula ingredients to avoid too.
While you should always feel comfortable discussing this topic at your own doctor's appointment, we decided to reach out to two ob-gyns for helpful lubricant shopping tips.
The Benefits of Using Lubricant For the Vagina
Lubricant can up the pleasure factor of sex, and it can also make sex more comfortable, especially if vaginal dryness is being experienced.
As Allison Hill, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn at Los Angeles Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Florajen chief medical correspondent, explained, the walls of the vagina are covered in rugae: ridges and pleats that expand to prevent tearing during the birthing process.
"Lubrication helps to prevent excessive friction over this rugae during sex," Dr. Hill said.
This friction, often caused by lack of lubrication, has the potential to cause irritation and tears.
"Our vaginas are designed to produce a natural lubricant during the arousal phase of sex. However, if you don't produce this, an artificial lubricant can be used," Dr. Hill added.
Yvonne Bohn, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn and Cystex chief medical correspondent, said that vaginal irritation caused by friction can also occur when sexual intercourse goes on for a long time — which is another situation when lubricant comes in handy.
The 3 Main Types of Lubricant
There are actually three different lubricant categories — water, oil, and silicone — which partly explains why there are so many options available. Knowing the difference between them, and in what circumstances they should and shouldn't be used, is critical, as some formulas increase the chances of condoms breaking and impact other barrier contraceptives.
Water-based lubricants are made with — you guessed it — water and other ingredients, depending on the formulation. Dr. Hill called water-based lubricants the most versatile and said they could be used with condoms and sex toys.
This type of lubricant may be safest for those with sensitive skin on the vulva, Dr. Hill explained. In this instance, the water-based lubricant should be free of additional additives and fragrances too.
As for oil-based lubricants, Dr. Bohn said their "advantage is they are long-lasting and do not require reapplication during intercourse."
However, oil-based lubricants can degrade condoms and diaphragms, therefore they are not a good choice if you are relying on these products for safe sex and contraceptive reasons.
According to Dr. Hill, silicone-based lubricants are long-lasting and are best for anal sex. This type of lubricant is also safe to use with condoms.
"The anus does not produce any natural lubricant, so an artificial one must be used every time," Dr. Hill explained. "Oil-based lubricants can erode condoms, so it is best to avoid those with anal sex. In addition, the anal area absorbs water very quickly and a water-based lubricant may dry out too quickly. For this reason, the best lubricant for anal sex is a silicone-based product."
The Irritating Lubricant Ingredients to Avoid
Another reason to scan the ingredients list? Some lubricants are made with ingredients that can be irritating to the vaginal skin.
Dr. Hill recommended staying away from lubricants with fragrance, phthalates, or parabens to avoid irritation to the skin. "In addition, they can change the pH balance of the vaginal canal, making the woman more susceptible to yeast and bacterial infections."
Dr. Bohn also recommended staying away from warming lubricants to avoid irritation as well.
If you're trying to get pregnant while having sex, reach out to your doctor for professional guidance on exactly what to use when trying to conceive, as certain lubricants can impact the movement of sperm. One specific ingredient to watch out for, Dr. Bohn said, is nonoxynol-9, which is a spermicide.
If the Lubricant Doesn't Feel Right, Stop Using It
"If you are using a lubricant and notice any discomfort, itching, [or] burning, you should discontinue that brand and try another — preferably water-based with minimal additives," Dr. Hill said.
Of course, you'll also want to keep in mind the type of sex you're having.
Finally, remember that finding the best lubricant for you can be a little bit of a process — and a very personal one at that.
"Use a lubricant that you personally find pleasant and non-irritating," Dr. Bohn said. "You may have to experiment. There are so many options, and what works for others may not be the best for you."