The U.S. market for vaginal lubricants and moisturizers is profitable and growing. One market research firm estimates that by 2020, sales of water-based personal lubricants will reach $588 million (Technovio, accessed on BusinessWire.com). As the population ages, more women experience menopause-related vaginal dryness, discomfort, and atrophy. Prescription hormone replacement therapy treats these symptoms effectively, but its use has declined due to concerns about cancer risk. Buyers often assume that over-the-counter lubricants and moisturizers must be safe. For decades, doctors have recommended water-based products like K-Y® Jelly and Astroglide® for their supposedly safe ability to provide lubrication without causing irritation or breaking down latex.
Are these assumptions true? Not entirely. A quick investigation of the top selling vaginal lubricants and moisturizers on amazon.com and Google Shopping revealed that nearly all products contain chemicals of concern. Keep reading for the lowdown on what’s in your favorite product.
Much of the female anatomy consists of exposed mucus membranes. These areas include the vagina, clitoris, labia minora, and vestibule (the open area around the urethra). These tissues are more sensitive than regular skin – obviously! Chemicals are more readily absorbed and likelier to cause irritation when applied here. As a general rule, if you wouldn’t put a product in your mouth, you probably shouldn’t put it in your vagina. Following this rule makes it easier to choose safe products.
First, a quick reminder about the difference between a lubricant and a moisturizer. A lubricant is intended for short term effects immediately after application. It is usually used for sex or pleasure, and sometimes for temporary comfort. A moisturizer is intended to be used a few times per week on a long term basis to provide vaginal comfort for women with chronic dryness or atrophy, regardless of sexual activity. Beware. Product availability and packaging change frequently. There is no such thing as a trusted brand when it comes to vaginal care products. It is up to the savvy consumer to read product packaging and interpret safety. Here’s a list of common ingredients to avoid.
10 Chemicals of Concern
Parabens: Used as preservatives, parabens are endocrine disruptors that mimic estrogen. Parabens may increase breast cancer risk and affect fetal development or expression of traits. We don’t know enough about these effects to assume that parabens are safe. The top-selling “fertility friendly” Pre-Seed™ personal lubricant contains both methylparaben and propylparaben. Yikes!
Petroleum products: Petroleum jelly, mineral oil, baby oil, etc. Petroleum products may contain heavy metal contaminants and impurities. Using petroleum jelly in the vagina disrupts the healthy microbiome and is associated with bacterial vaginosis. Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are petroleum derivatives with penetration enhancing effects. They are identified by a number which describes their molecular weight; for example, PEG-20. The smaller the number, the greater the ability to penetrate. PEGs should be avoided with broken or damaged skin.
Silicone products: Silicone fluid, dimethicone, etc. Moderately hazardous according to the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org). Silicone-based personal lubricants are the most rapidly growing segment of the lubricant market.
Propylene glycol: A skin and eye irritant. Effects increase with repeated or prolonged use. Absorbed through intact skin.
Sodium hydroxide: Otherwise known as lye, a corrosive. Shouldn’t be used on fragile skin or mucus membranes, e.g., the vagina!
Chlorhexidine: A potent antimicrobial, an immune and respiratory allergen, irritant, and toxin.
Phenoxyethanol: Used as a preservative, this is a moderately hazardous irritant.
Fragrance: A catch-all term that allows manufacturers to hide undisclosed chemicals in their cosmetic products. “Fragrance” may cause reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and cancer.
Glycerin: A sweet, edible substance. Food grade glycerin may be nice in skin care products, but avoid using it in the vagina. It can be a mucosal irritant and it can raise the vaginal pH, predisposing to an overgrowth of bacteria and yeast.
Palm oil: Not a toxin per se, but an environmental concern. Palm oil production causes deforestation, loss of wildlife habitat, and pollution.
Top Selling Lubricants with Chemicals of Concern
- K-Y® Jelly Personal Lubricant: glycerin, chlorhexidine, methylparaben, sodium hydroxide
- Astroglide® Liquid Personal Lubricant: glycerin, propylene glycol, methylparaben, propylparaben
- Astroglide® Natural: phenoxyethanol
- Shibari Personal Lubricant: glycerin, methylparaben, propylparaben
- Lush® Water Personal Lubricant: glycerin, propylene glycol, methyparaben, PEG-90M
- Lulu Lube: propylene glycol
- Pre-Seed™ Personal Lubricant: methylparaben, propylparaben
- Surgilube®: propylene glycol
Top Selling Vaginal Moisturizers with Chemicals of Concern
- K-Y® Liquibeads: silicone oil, glycerin, dimethiconol
- Replens™ Long Lasting Vaginal Moisturizer: glycerin, palm oil, methylparaben, sodium hydroxide
- Vagisil® ProHydrate™: glycerin, ethylhexylglycerin, sodium hydroxide
- Luvena® Restorative Vaginal Moisturizer: Multiple PEGs
- HYALO GYN® Vaginal Hydrating Gel: propylene glycol, sodium hydroxide
Are you as concerned as I am after reading this list? I was able to find only one product among the top sellers that seems to have safer ingredients. It’s called Vmagic, and is marketed as a moisturizer. It contains avocado oil, sea buckthorn oil, beeswax, honey and propolis blend, and is certified organic (vmagicnow.com). Due to the beeswax it contains, it should not be used on broken skin or wounds. A company called YES offers several products that pass muster as well (yesyesyes.org).
Here are other simple products you can use instead of chemical-laden packaged lubes and moisturizers. Not coincidentally, these items are edible:
- Coconut oil: Solid at room temperature, melts on contact.
- Almond or apricot kernel oil: Lightweight, fragrance free. Low risk of irritation or allergy.
- Vitamin E oil: A bit thicker and stickier, fragrance free. Vitamin E oil is a natural preservative with a long shelf life. It can be used on its own or added to one of the oils above.
These oils do not have the ability to provide long lasting moisturization, as some commercial products do. Hyaluronic acid draws moisture into the vaginal wall and keeps it there longer. Hyaluronic acid is non-hormonal and is relatively safe in its own right. Unfortunately, most vaginal products containing hyaluronic acid also contain one or more chemicals of concern, and there is no evidence that oral hyaluronic acid supplements have vaginal benefits. If you can find a hyaluronic acid-based gel without parabens and other chemical offenders, give it a try.
April Ward, MSN, CNM is an integrative women’s health specialist in Skaneateles, NY. To learn more, call 315-200-2349.