Should You Switch to Natural Lubes and Condoms?
A gynecologist shares what she really thinks of this trend.
There’s been a lot of buzz lately about going au naturel with condoms and lubricants. This might not strike you as too surprising, considering the current craze for all-things organic, local, and natural. But should you really ditch your latex rubbers and keep a jar of coconut oil in the bedroom?
A recent article on Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle site Goop called standard lubricants "super toxic," and featured an interview with a naturopathic doctor who warned about carcinogens in condoms. To find out whether any of the concerns with these products are legit, we spoke with Jennifer Gunter, MD, an ob-gyn based in San Francisco. Here is her take on the natural lube and condom trend.
Latex condoms are not riddled with toxins
In her interview with Goop, Maggie Ney, ND, said that although latex isn't bad for us (aside from being a potential allergen), the chemicals used to process it—such as nitrosamine—might be. But Dr. Gunter says we really shouldn’t stress. “The amount of nitrosamine that’s in a condom is so miniscule,” she explains. “You’re at greater risk by walking into a parking garage and smelling the exhaust, to put that into perspective.
Dr. Gunter is also skeptical about Dr. Ney’s advice to look for a "vegan, paraben-free, glycerin-free, Nonoxynal-9-free, and benzocaine- and lidocaine-free condom."
"There’s this fear that you’re going to get some toxin from your latex condom, which is ridiculous. It just doesn’t make sense medically,” says Dr. Gunter. "Meanwhile women are getting HPV, HIV, gonorrhea, and Chlamydia—real toxins—and latex can [protect] them from that."
In other words, while using only perfectly pure condoms may seem like a good idea, such products aren't always easy to find. The real danger is when a fear of chemical by-products leads you to skip using a condom altogether.
And there's no need to panic about parabens
Proponents of all-natural lube name these preservatives (found in a range of personal care products, from makeup to shampoo) as a reason to steer clear of standard products. It's true that parabens are weak estrogen mimics, and could theoretically increase a woman's risk of breast cancer. However, Dr. Gunter explains, the actual health risks of parabens remain unclear.
While there likely aren't enough parabens in lube to worry about, she says, there's nothing wrong with trying to limit your exposure to chemicals that may act like hormones. "There are plenty of great [lube] options without parabens," she says, "like silicone-based lubricants."
If it's irritation you're worried about, parabens probably aren't the culprit. Dr. Gunter says any discomfort resulting from lube is most likely caused by the glycerin in water-based lubes, which draws water out of your cells and leads to more friction. To avoid this annoyance, Dr. Gunter advises selecting a lube with less than 8% glycerin.
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But you should avoid certain ingredients
Dr. Gunter advises skipping any lubes that contain the chemical chlorohexidine for the same reason Dr. Ney recommended avoiding it. “[Chlorohexidine] is an antibacterial compound that can kill the lactobacilli, good bacteria, in your vagina,” says Dr. Gunter.
Remember that natural doesn't mean harmless
It’s easy to assume that anything touted as “natural” is automatically better for our bodies, but that’s not necessarily the case. “There’s lots of things in nature that can hurt us in many ways,” explains Dr. Gunter. “This idea that natural must mean safe is not accurate information.”
Just because you would put something in your mouth, doesn't mean you should put it in your vagina
In the Goop article, Dr. Ney offers this litmus test for lube: “If it is safe to eat, it is generally safe to apply.”
But Dr. Gunter strongly disagrees. “There are lots of things that can irritate your vaginal mucosa and not irritate your mouth,” she explains. “For example, you may eat something spicy, but would you put spicy food in your vagina? Probably not.”
Dr. Gunter has seen patients end up with vaginal problems after using edible products like honey, cinnamon, vinegar, lime juice, and oregano. When considering a lubricant, rather than asking yourself Would I eat this?, Dr. Gunter recommends considering these factors cited by the World Health Organization: “Osmololality, pH, tendency to cause allergic and irritant reactions, and whether studies tell us if the lubricant can have unanticipated consequences.”
What to know if you decide to go with a natural lube
"I tell my patients that if they want to try a natural oil, that’s up to them and there’s nothing wrong with trying them out,” says Dr. Gunter. She just urges people to proceed with caution. Skip the honey and vinegar, for example, and consider gentler coconut or olive oil instead. And if you experience irritation, be sure to see your doctor.
Dr. Gunter also thinks it’s important to understand that natural oils are not well studied as lubricants. “It doesn’t mean they’re safe or unsafe. It just means they’re unstudied,” she says. Plus, unlike commercially available lubes, they haven't been tested by the FDA.
Finally, don't forget that oil-based lubes can weaken latex. “People shouldn’t let this desire for an untested natural product trump their need for a latex condom,” Dr. Gunter says.
So whether you decide to stick with tried-and-true silicon lubes or try coconut oil, Dr. Gunter’s bottom line is this: “I think that experimentation is a normal part of sexuality. People want to try different things. I don’t ever want to discourage experimentation and it being fun. Just use your common sense.”