WHAT ARE ALL THESE INGREDIENTS AND HOW DO I KNOW IF THEY ARE SAFE?
You need to read the ingredients before you buy a lube, but there are a lot of weird ingredients out there, some of which have very scary names. What’s a sexy person to do?
Don’t worry! We got your (sexy) back!
Here is a (non-exhaustive but still quite long) list of some of the most common ingredients found in personal lubricants. We suggest you use it as a glossary to check against any ingredient lists you might be looking at.
The list is divided into what each ingredient is used for. They should be listed in your ingredient list roughly in this order…
These are the ingredients that are usually listed first or second in the list and constitute the majority of the formula.
Water/Aqua/Purified Water/Deionized water
Good old H2O! If this is not the first or second of your ingredients, you probably should not use the lube with any silicone toys.
When buying a silicone lubricant Dimethicone is what you’re looking for. It is the best of the silicone polymers because, for added value, it is also non-comedogenic and won't clog your pores.
Cyclomethicone and Phenyl Trimethicone (Also synthetic)
These are are basic silicone polymers and are often found in silicone lubes and are generally considered to be un-dangerous.
Another silicone polymer, has, however, caused uterine cancer in rats and is considered a pollutant that has documented build up in nature from our wastewater and trash.
SOLVENTS & THICKENERS
These are used to both keep the lube from separating, but also to make the lubricant thicker/more slippery.
PEG / PEG 90M / Polyethylene glycol (Synthetic)
PEG (polyethylene glycols) compounds are used extensively in the body care and cosmetics industry to thicken and soften. They also allow ingredients to absorb faster into the body. They have a high osmolality level which can reduce skin moisture and cause irritation. Though generally considered non-toxic, the medical community has voiced concern that if used on broken or damaged skin it might allow toxic impurities into the body. Considering there are many, many better options available to replace this ingredient, we suggest you take a pass if you see this in the ingredient list.
Propylene Glycol (Synthetic)
Propylene glycol is used often in lube formulas because of its slippery aspect and slightly sweet flavor, but it is a solvent first and foremost, allowing non-water-soluble ingredients to mix with water. Like PEG it is highly osmolar but in minute quantities it will cause little effect.
Propylene glycol is not anti-freeze.
Yes, it is sometimes used as an ingredient in anti-freeze but keep in mind, it is also used in whipped cream.
Fun fact: Propylene glycol is a more environmentally friendly way to lower the freezing temperature of water than the highly toxic ethylene glycol (see polyoxyethylene or PEG!) which they used to use to de-ice airports in the 1950s causing some severe pollution.
Guess what! This is the same thing as Propylene Glycol! Tricky tricky!!
The only difference is that it is derived from corn and production generally leaves a smaller ecological footprint. However, it does raise osmolality just like propylene glycol and should be used sparingly.
Another polymer of ethylene glycol (also known as PEG, which is the scarier, more toxic cousin of propylene glycol). Generally, not a great idea to ingest or put any ethylene glycol or any of its polymers on or in your body.
Optifio H370VF (Synthetic)
This is an industrial ingredient! Don’t put this on your body! It was created to thicken paints and lacquers and work on vinyl and latex machinery. It should not be used on your body! I was totally shocked to find this in a lube ingredient list! (I will name no names! But seriously, WTF?)
This is used as a thickener, especially in a lot of gluten-free food products.
It is highly viscose, nontoxic, and is generally considered to be hypoallergenic. It is generally made from softwood pulp or cotton linter.
This is a gelling and thickening agent which is made from wood pulp and is generally considered harmless.
AND THEN, THERE ARE POLYSACCHARIDE THICKENERS:
What are polysaccharides?
Carbohydrates (e.g. starch, cellulose, or glycogen) whose molecules consist of a number of sugar molecules bonded together in a molecular chain.
Though polysaccharides are far closer to actual sugar than glycerin, no scientific studies that I am aware of have shown that these common “natural lube” ingredients “grow yeast”, either. For more on The Glycerin Myth see our blog on the subject.
Xanthan Gum (Plant-based and Synthetic)
Xanthan Gum can be produced by both bacterial fermentation or synthetically. It is used in foods as a gelling agent and thickener. It is a polysaccharide composed of glucose, mannose, and glucuronic acid.
Agar is a jelly-like substance obtained from red algae.
This natural thickener, a soluble fiber polysaccharide is actually a long chain of indigestible sugars usually made from apples or orange peels.
This highly processed food additive is derived after much, much chemical manipulation from potatoes or a similarly starchy vegetable. It is generally used to improve texture. It is highly likely to contain gluten for those with Celiac, and its high glycemic index makes it a NO for those suffering from diabetes. It can affect gut bacteria as well, killing off important good bacteria that we need for digestion and our immune systems. Considering this, maltodextrin would potentially be a “bad” ingredient when using a lube anally, or when using it for oral.
PRESERVATIVES BOTH “GOOD” AND “BAD”
Sodium Benzoate (Synthetic)
A common preservative for foods and drinks that use natural ingredients. It is naturally occurring in many fruits and has been used as a preservative since the 16th century!
Potassium Sorbate (Synthetic) and Citric Acid (plant-based)
These are common preservatives that are generally considered harmless in small quantities.
Used as both a disinfectant and an anti-septic. It has been proven however to kill three types of naturally occurring vaginal Lactobacillus and could, as a result, create an environment where infections are more likely to occur.
This artificial preservative and stabilizer is considered to be safe in quantities of less than 1%, however, using several products that contain this glycol ether at the same time might result in over-exposure. The jury is out on whether this is dangerous or not, or whether adverse reactions are simply linked to allergies. (It is an allergen.) For more on this subject read here.
Naturally derived preservatives commonly used in cosmetics and generally considered to be harmless, however, those with sensitive skin might find they cause some slight irritation.
Pentylene Glycol (Synthetic)
This chemical is often used as a preservative, especially for brands wishing to remain “preservative-free”, because along with its humectant properties, it also has anti-microbial effects which add to shelf life. Though widely used, new data suggests that pentylene glycol might cause toxicity in high amounts, or lead to skin irritation. Sensitive skin people abstain!
Commonly known as parabens, these ingredients are used as artificial preservatives to prolong shelf life in cosmetics, body care products, and many lubricants.
Fun facts about parabens:
They do occur naturally in nature but in very minute quantities.
They do enter our body through our skin and then remain in the body tissues, where they might indeed cause cancer though studies are still inconclusive.
We do know that parabens have been found in the tissues of marine animals- and this is most definitely because of parabens in products we wash down the drain.
Parabens are NOT hypoallergenic and do cause allergic reactions in many.
There are many other options, and parabens are not a necessary addition to any lubricant. They do not provide any essential benefit, so frankly, until they are proven to be non-toxic we should all avoid them.
OTHER PRESERVATIVES TO DEFINITELY AVOID
These known endocrine disruptors that are largely linked to breast cancer in women among other nasty things. The ones frequently used in lubes are Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), Dimethyl phthalate (DMP), and Diethyl phthalate (DEP).
Chlorhexidine Digluconate (Synthetic)
This is an antibacterial and an antiseptic which is used as a preservative. It is non-toxic, but it is very strong- perhaps too strong for delicate, natural vaginal and anal flora.
Diazolidinyl Urea (Synthetic)
Another antibacterial. When added to a formulation, this antibacterial creates formaldehyde which will definitely kills anything that might grow- but is also a major allergen and irritating to skin.
Sucralose / Sodium Saccharine (Synthetic)
These are sugar-free sweeteners and are generally considered harmless.
(Were you raised by hippies like me and are worried about saccharine? Don’t be!)
Rebaudioside A (Plant-based)
This is Stevia!
OTHER ADDITIVES AND SLIPPERY STUFF
Tocopheryl Acetate (Plant or Animal-based)
This is just good old Vitamin E.
Sodium Hydroxide (Synthetic)
Sodium Hydroxide is used as a pH adjuster and yes, a quick Google search will show you this is the chemical name for caustic lye, but do not worry! When combined with water, it stops being lye and becomes totally safe! Our favorite chemistry bae, Lab Muffin, describes the process here.
This is a gentle acid used mostly in anti-aging products to reduce wrinkles, and chem peels.
Not sure why it would be in a lubricant, but there you are.
Sodium Hyaluronate (Synthetic)
This is the sodium salt of hyaluronic acid. When it occurs naturally, it is a “tissue lubricant” usually found inside the body, in your joints, or between internal tissues. The synthetic version is an allergen and normally used as an injection for joint pain with a long list of side-effects. Not sure why anyone would add this to lube, but they do.
Castor Oil (Plant-based)
This is a vegetable oil derived from the castor bean. (Surprise!) It is anti-inflammatory, hydrating and also a powerful laxative. It is generally a good oil to have around. It might also have adverse effects on latex - better to check with the brand before using with condoms.
This numbing agent and local anesthetic come’s with a list of side effects as long as my arm (and my arms are long!). In higher concentrations, when absorbed by mucous membranes (like vaginas or colons), it can cause Methemoglobinemia, where your blood no longer takes on oxygen and horrible things are the result!
We hope this list helped you find the perfect lube for you!
Rebecca Pinette-Dorin is a writer, activist, business-woman and educator who has been working in the sex industry since 2004. Currently, she is the North-American Sales Manager for EXSENS. Learn more at: www.sexpositiverebecca.com
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February 15, 2023
Actually very helpful, I was reading labels and got a little concerned. Then came across this article, thanks for writing!