Skin Damage, Personal Lubricant Dangers and STIs – Part One

natural vegan lubricantsA whole raft of studies are calling into question the safety of personal lubricants in regards to skin cell damage and sexually transmitted infections, with some of the more well known lubricants performing particularly badly in safety experiments. The personal lubricant market is estimated at around $219 million in the US alone, but evidence is mounting that these sex aids actually promote disease transmission.

Wide Range of Lubricants, Which are Best?

Many lubricants used during sex have osmolalities higher than those of the human body, which may be a cause of increased risks of infection. These lubricants are used to reduce friction and increase pleasure during intercourse and other sexual activity.

Many have added ingredients designed to heat, promote circulation, or even sometime to numb in order to hamper arousal and delay climax. When asked to name personal lubricants most people think only of KY Jelly, despite the huge number of available products, some of which are even organic, vegan, and locally-sourced or otherwise ethically and environmentally conscious.

Vagina and Rectum Damaged by Some Lubricants

Research suggests that some lubricants can damage cells that line the vagina and rectum, potentially opening up the body to increased risk of STIs, as well as compromising the health of sexual partners. One study reported higher rates of STIs such as chlamydia in those who consistently used personal lubricants for rectal intercourse, where such lubrication is highly recommended in order to reduce tissue trauma and risks of anal fissures. Those who used such lubricants less consistently had lower rates of infections.

dangers of personal lubricants to skin and sti transmission
Fig 1. Lubricants as they vary from the body’s own fluid osmolality.

Microbicide Personal Lubricants – Risks

Rather worryingly, there are plans for these very lubricants to provide a base for microbicide gels that may protect people from HIV. Although the idea of medicating an already widely-used product is laudable, care needs to be taken not to unwittingly counteract such good intentions by ignoring the apparent safety risks of lubricants themselves.

Those working on these kinds of microbicide products have said that there are concerns but that there is no clear proof of increased risk as yet. The chair of the International Rectal Microbicide Advocates (IRMA) group, a global network pushing for safe and effective STI-preventing products has said that “Just because a lubricant causes cell damage in the lab, we don’t know whether that has anything to do with disease transmission in humans in the real world.”

Lack of Human Testing for Personal Lubricants

Market leaders, Johnson & Johnson, who make the K-Y brand products, says, “We continually review new research as it evolves. K-Y brand products have provided effective lubrication and moisturization for millions of couples and are safe when used as directed.” However, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require personal lubricants to be tested on humans, only on animals as the lubricants are classified as medical devices.

Rabbits and guinea pigs provide, therefore, the majority of safety data but, luckily for the animals, rectal use of the lubricants is considered ‘off-label’ so is not required to be tested in the laboratory.

Some Lubricants Increase HIV Transmission Risk

Safety concerns began to be voiced more than a decade ago as researchers began testing microbicide agents added to spermicidal lubricants as a way of blocking HIV transmission. The added chemical, a detergent called nonoxynol-9 could has been included in lubricants for many years because it punches holes in the cell membranes of sperm and reduces pregnancy risk.

However, a 2002 clinical trial sounded the alarm as the nonoxynol-9 vaginal gel not only failed to protect women from HIV infection it actually increased the risk in the sex workers tested. These women were living and working in the sex trade in countries such as South Africa and Thailand and used the product three or four times per day.

Lubricated Condoms and Dangers

The reason behind the increased risk was that the detergent punched holes in the cell membranes of those cells lining the vagina and rectum, as well as in the sperm. The vagina’s mucosal lining provides a good barrier to infection for the most part but these spermicides containing nonoxynol-9 compromised that barrier and opened up the women and, presumably, men to increased risk of infection.

Some condoms still include the chemical, despite it now being regarded not as a microbicide but as a cell killer. After such results, researchers began wondering if other seemingly innocuous components of personal lubricants had safety risks.

Read on to find out why personal lubricants present safety concerns and which lubricants are best.

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