How To Tell If You're Allergic To Lube — And What To Do If You Have A Bad Reaction

by Claire Lampen
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A few years ago, in a misplaced effort to inject some spice into a flagging relationship, I invested approximately $15 in a bandaid solution: Lube, an impulse purchase I made on my way out of a pharmacy, without doing any background research. I had, however, seen the pyrotechnic-enhanced commercials: If the ads were to be believed (and, spoiler, they're not), I could expect a sexual explosion sparked at the mingling of two complementary gels. In reality, my partner enjoyed what he described — if memory serves — as the same old sex experience moderately elevated by mild tingly sensations. I, meanwhile, "enjoyed" a very itchy vagina. And the possibility that I was allergic to the lube I'd looked to as a sort of sexual life raft. Womp womp.

It's frustrating, purchasing a product with the intention of improving your physical well-being (which it does for many people), only to find yourself sabotaged and your genitals thrown into an irritated tailspin. Either it's my body or the manufacturers, but something/someone is being very rude here. I would like to blame the latter camp, but as a person whose skin rashily reacts to common ingredients buried in beauty products, I suspect a secret allergen dwelling in this particular lube duo.

But is it even possible to be allergic to lube, when there exist so many separate subsets and recipes? "Allergies [are] not that common with 'plain' lubes," Susan Wysocki, WHNP-BC, iWoman's Health President and a member of the America Sexual Health Association's Board of Directors, tells Bustle. But, she noted, lubes with a lot of bells and whistles — think: warming agents, simulated effervescence, flavors — may be more likely to cause a reaction.

How Do I Know If I'm Allergic To Lube

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Again, it's probable that a person who experiences burning, redness, itching, pain, or swelling on contact with a lubricant isn't allergic to the product as a whole, but rather, sensitive to one or some of its ingredients.

Are you feeling irritated after using a spermicidal lube or condom? Michael Krychman, MD, Executive Director of The Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship, tells Bustle that the primary ingredient — nonoxynol-9 — in spermicide can "irritate sensitive vaginal and rectal mucosa," and advises that consumers should always read the full ingredient list on a product label before using it on their bodies.

What Do I Do If I Have An Allergic Reaction To Lube?

In the short term, flush the area with water. If you can, Wysocki recommends drawing yourself a bath and soaking in the water at a comfortable temperature, without soap, bath salts, or any other additives. If the irritation doesn't clear up or indeed, if it gets worse, contact a health care provider — there's always a chance that the uncomfortable feelings plaguing your genitalia aren't caused by lube at all, but by an STI like trichomoniasis.

But above all, Wysocki says, if you use a lube and find yourself inflamed afterward, "Stop using the product!"

Are There Any Especially Good Lubes For Sensitive Skin?

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First things first, spot test a new purchase: "Anyone who knows they have sensitive skin on other parts of their [body] should try a small amount of the product before slathering a new lube on," Wysocki says.

When choosing a new lube, take note of the composition. Three basic types of lube exist: Water-based, oil-based, and silicone. Water-based lubes work best for use with body-safe, silicone sex toys (while silicone lube degrades them); super slick silicone lubes work best for a situation like anal; and oil-based lubes work for unprotected sex, but weaken condoms. If you've noticed skin sensitivity while using lubricants that include chemicals, Wysocki says you might consider a preservative-free oil you find in your kitchen, like olive oil, if you're willing to run the risk of staining your sheets and/or clothes. Noting the potential for infection associated with "pantry solutions," Krychman suggests simply using your body's "abundant [and] cheap" saliva supply.

In my experience, un-augmented water-based lubes have been the best bet, although they may seem boring. Avoid flavors, warming ingredients, bactericides, and spermicides, Krychman warns. Which is to say, don't be duped by the fireworks on the flashy packaging — you're better off doing research before you by lube and finding one that suits your needs.