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Why Your Lube Might Not Be Safe


Man squeezes can of lubricant.
© David Muir/Getty
Lubricant use by men who have anal sex may not be as harmless as once thought. A study in the January 2012 issue of Sexually Transmitted Diseases found that both men and women who used lube frequently during sex had more incidents of STIs.

The results are contradictory to what we've been taught that the slipperier the entry, the better. This is still true. Having anal without lube, or dry, can cause small tears and damage to the rectal walls and invite bacteria and viruses into your bloodstream, especially when there's no condom involved.

So, what's the culprit? According to UCLA clinical researcher Dr. Pamina M. Gorbach, microbicides found in many popular lubes are "carrier vehicles" for pesky viruses and bacteria. So much so that there's a 8.3 percent greater risk of catching STIs for those that keep it wet. According to her report titled "The Slippery Slope: Lubricant Use and Rectal Sexually Transmitted Infections: A Newly Identified Risk," although lube use is common during anal sex, not enough has been done to assess the safety of those lubes.

To Lube or Not To Lube?

Dr. Gorbach and the study's co-authors admit that the study isn't an absolute; it's just one of many studies needed "to clarify if lubricant use poses a public health risk." So right now the results should be taken only as a reminder that safer sex is better sex.

Lube users don't have more sex than anyone else. Lube users are not less likely to use condoms. So, why the higher STI incidence among lube users? Dr. Gorback and her team aren't there yet, but say lube is a contributing factor.

This isn't the first time the safety of lubes has been under scrutiny. Health officials have long warned that spermicides, anti-pregnancy gels invented in the 80s, can strip the inner lining of your inner pleasure tract. Stern warnings are still in place against buying condoms and lubes laced with the substance. Oily lubes are also on the no-go list since they damage condoms. Water-based lubes are the top recommendation.

For Dr. Gorbach, this isn't her first 15 minutes. She authored a similar, yet smaller, study in 2010 about the risks of lube or, better, the risk of thinking about lube as a protective barrier against STIs. In an aidsmap.com report Dr. Gorbach is quoted encourages anal sexers to continue using lube "because it facilitates and encourages condom use" but warns health officials not to say lube is actually harm reduction. "We don’t have any data to support that," she says. "I wish we did!"

Aren't Microbicides Good Against HIV?

Microbicides have been found in studies to protect against HIV. Advanced clinical trials are currently underway to develop microbicide gels that can be inserted into the vagina as a barrier to the virus. Scientists are also testing gels for the anus, but the walls of the vagina and anus are quite different.

The Verdict

Sex right now is more complicated than ever. With conflicting stories out there, it's hard to know which way is up. What we do know is that there are ways to keep yourself safe until health officials can sort out all of the research. In the meantime, here's what you can do:

First, always practice safer sex, which means a condom every time and regular testing with a detective's fierceness in getting to know your partner's sexual history.

Also, go easy on the porn reenactments. Save it for the screen because rough or dry sex can cause tears that invite unwanted things into your system. Mystery still remains whether lubes help carry infections into your body, so for now it's best to take as many precautions as you can.
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