More often than not people assume that there’s something amiss in their own body before realizing what they’re experiencing is a reaction to an ingredient in a personal lubricant! Understanding how your body interacts with personal lubricants is essential to finding the right lube for you, especially if irritation or abnormal reactions are occurring.
How something interacts with the skin of the genitals, or a mucous membrane, can vary greatly from how it would interact with the skin on the rest of the body. To better understand skin and lube interactions we must first better understand the skin and environment of our genitals…..
Mucous Membrane (Mucosa) – moist tissue that lines certain cavities or orifices in the body, such as the nose, mouth, lungs, the urinary and digestive tract, the vulva, vagina, cervix, glans of the penis, inner layer of foreskin, and urethra.
• Mucous membranes are covered in epithelium, which are involved in absorption and secretion
• Fluid secreted by mucosa is called mucous and helps to stop pathogens from entering the body.
Epithelium/Epithelial Layer (of skin) – The thin tissue that forms the covering of most internal and external surfaces of the body and its organs. The Epithelial layer of skin’s primary purposes are:
• Protecting the underlying tissues from toxins, invasion by pathogens, and physical trauma
• Regulating the exchange of chemicals between the underlying tissues and a body cavity
• Secreting hormones into the circulatory system, or secreting sweat, mucus, enzymes, and other products that are delivered by ducts
• The rectum and the endocervix have a single layer of columnar epithelium, which is very fragile, but regenerates quickly
• The vagina had what is called a squamous, multi-layered epithelium, which is less sensitive to abrasions and irritation than that of the rectum and/or cervix
Lactobacilli – microorganisms that make up a portion of the natural flora of the vagina as well as the gastrointestinal tract.
• Lactobacilli metabolize lactose and other sugars into lactic acid, creating acidic environments, which keep other potentially harmful bacteria from growing inside of the body.
pH – is the measure of a liquid’s basicity or acidity on a scale from 0-14, 0 being most acidic and 14 being most basic. The pH of various body parts is important to maintain, as it is one of the body’s natural defense mechanisms against foreign pathogens, and can be disrupted by a lubricant that has a different pH.
• Imbalances in vaginal pH can lead to BV and yeast infection, or serve as a warning sign or symptom of a more serious health issue
• Vaginal and cervical pH levels naturally fluctuate with the menstrual cycle and are affected by estrogen levels, as well as playing an important role in fertility and conception
Now that we’ve got that under our belts, let’s look at some of the reactions the body can have to personal lubricants, along with why they occur and if any one ingredient can be pinpointed as the cause.
General Skin Irritation – immediate reactions on the surface of the skin, including itching, burning, soreness, dryness, or light bleeding.
• is typically a response to chemical concentrations, pH, temperature, exposure to UV rays, overly dry skin, or a variety of other causes
• can manifest in redness, rashes, itching, burning, or tingling and can last from hours to weeks
• may be attributed to effects of certain lubricant ingredients on the skin’s outermost layer, called the epithelial layer.
• glycerin(e), parabens, or petrochemicals, such as propylene glycol, polypropylene, or ethylenes typically indicate that a lubricant is hyperosmotic, meaning it can cause the epithelial layer to slough off1, especially when combined with the friction of penetration
• harsh microbicides, like chlorhexidine gluconate or sodium hydroxide, can also cause dryness, itching, or burning2
Sensitization – a skin reaction similar to irritation that acts as a warning mechanism designed to protect the body from a strong allergic reaction.
• often misidentified as an allergic reaction or general irritation
• an immune response that is slower to develop, requiring repeated exposures
• can manifest in rashes, itching, redness, raised bumps, and urticaria
Contact Dermatitis – rash or irritation on the skin due to contact with an allergen or irritant.
• typically lasts a few days to a few weeks
• symptoms can range from redness, itching, swelling, burning, tingling, to blisters, lesions, or, in the case of prolonged dermatitis, bacterial infection
• personal lubricants that contain propylene glycol or potassium sorbate have higher instances of inducing contact dermatitis3, 4, 5
Contact Urticaria – commonly referred to as “hives,” contact urticaria is the abrupt reaction of raised, red, itchy or burning patches on the skin due to contact with an allergen or irritant.
• lasts anywhere from a few hours up to six weeks
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) – vaginal irritation or inflammation caused by an imbalance of naturally occurring bacterial flora, or lactobacilli (microorganisms that metabolize lactose and other sugars into lactic acid which helps maintain a healthy pH6)
• sometimes categorized as a vaginal pH more basic, or higher, than 4.5, although for some bodies no irritation would occur until the pH exceeds ~ 5.5
• often caused by douching, has been linked to vaginal exposure to petrochemicals7, although it is unclear if BV is caused by the petrochemicals themselves or their osmolality
• lubricants that contain harsh microbicides, like chlorhexidine gluconate or sodium hydroxide, can kill vaginal lactobacilli and contribute to BV6
Yeast Infection – sometimes called thrush or candidiasis, a fungal overgrowth of the candidas genus of yeast.
• among the most common fungal infections and can occur on or in many parts of the body
• symptoms include itchiness, redness, soreness, pain, and discharge that can range from thin and watery to a thick, white discharge often compared to cottage cheese.
• Vaginal Yeast Infection- if the pH of the vagina is imbalanced, the flora or bacteria in the vagina become imbalanced, or there is a surplus of sugars (which feed yeast), an overgrowth may occur.
• candidas yeast are a naturally occurring part of the vaginal ecosystem
• people taking antibiotics, with diabetes, compromised immune systems, or undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy are often more susceptible to vaginal yeast infections
• many people with vaginas will develop a yeast infection while taking antibiotics for a urinary tract infection
• personal lubricants which contain sugars (sucrose), honey, glycerin(e)/glycerol, or maltodextrin can feed candidas yeast and lead to vaginal yeast overgrowth8
• irritation caused by vaginal yeast overgrowth can leave the mucous membranes of the vulva and vagina more susceptible to injury and STI contraction6