What Is Lube?

Lube works by reducing friction during sex

Personal lubricant or lube is a liquid or gel that is used to reduce friction and irritation during sexual activity. Lube can be used during almost any type of sex, including penis-in-vagina penetration, anal sex, sex toy play with or without a partner, and masturbation.

While many people produce their own natural lubricant, it’s not always enough, and the addition of lube can make sex more enjoyable.

Humans have been using personal lubricants for centuries, as long ago as 350 BCE, when olive oil was the lube of choice. Manufactured lube hit the market in 1919 with the introduction of KY Jelly, which was originally created to be a surgical lubricant. 

This article will go over what lube is, how it's used, and tips for choosing a lube.

legs on bedsheet
(Leander Baerenz/Getty Images)

Types of Lube

There are many types of lube, but they all fall into three broad categories.

  • Water-based: Safe to use with condoms and sex toys, easy to clean, gentle on skin, but may not last as long as other types of lube
  • Silicone-based: Safe to use with condoms, but unsafe to use in conjunction with silicone sex toys or diaphragms; less sticky but lasts longer than water-based lube
  • Oil-based: Unsafe to use with condoms or sex toys, as oil can break down latex and interfere with the effectiveness of condoms. Oil-based lube, such as coconut oil or petroleum jelly, can be used for some sex involving skin-to-skin contact.

How Lube Works

Lube works by reducing friction during sex, making vaginal and anal penetration and masturbation (either alone or with a partner) easier, more enjoyable, and less likely to cause irritation. Though once considered a product for women in menopause to counter vaginal dryness resulting from decreased levels of estrogen, lube has become widely accepted and encouraged for sexual use at all ages. 

Lube is especially helpful in conjunction with condom use, since it reduces friction, and therefore the risk of breakage that may result in an unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection. It's even recommended for use with pre-lubricated condoms since it allows partners to control the degree of slipperiness and adjust it to their preferred level of comfort.

When using lube along with an external condom (previously referred to as a “male” condom), apply it to the outside of the condom—not directly on the shaft of the penis. With an internal condom (formerly referred to as a “female” condom), you may want to apply lube both inside and outside the condom for greater comfort, regardless of whether it is pre-lubricated.

Lube Safety

In general, lube is considered a low-risk product. However, there is research to suggest lube with high osmolality (the concentration of particles and minerals in a liquid) might damage the top layer of vaginal and anal tissues. Any time tissue is torn or damaged during sex, the risk of transmission of a sexually transmitted infection (STIs), including HIV, increases.

At the same time, lube can help to prevent tears in the skin by reducing friction and rubbing. There are also certain lubricants that are considered fertility-friendly for couples trying to conceive, such as Pre-Seed. For most people, the benefits of using lube outweigh any potential risk.

How to Choose Lube

There are many types of lube as well as different ways to use lube. The product that's best for you depends on your needs and preferences. That said, here are some general tips for choosing lube:

  • Think about how you'll use lube: The type of sex you'll be having when you want to use lube, as well as whether you'll want to use lube on a sex toy, and whether you or a partner will be wearing a condom, are a few factors to consider when you're looking for a product. For example, silicone-based lubes can damage sex toys, so they're not the best option if you'll be using them. Oil-based lubes last a long time but they can weaken a latex condom, so you don't want to use them if you or a partner is wearing one.
  • Consider your skin needs: If you have sensitive skin, water-based lubes are usually a good option and they can be used for most kinds of sex. If you have any allergies, make sure to check the labels on a lube product carefully. The ingredients in lubes may irritate or cause a skin reaction even in people who don't have a known allergy.
  • Preferences: In addition to lube functionality, you'll also find a variety of features like taste, scent, and sensation-producing (like tingling). The preferences of you and a partner will guide your choice of lube.

Where to Buy Lube and Popular Lube Brands

Another element of lube selection to consider is price. As with most personal care products, lubes have a wide price range.

Some of the most popular lubes are made by brands that also make other sexual health products like condoms, but you don't necessarily need to buy a more expensive, brand-name product if you find an affordable option that meets your wants and needs.

Many stores have their own generic brands, like Equate, that make lubes that usually cost less than brand-name products.

Here are just a few examples of popular lube brands:

  • KY Jelly
  • Astroglide
  • Trojan
  • Durex
  • Replens

You can buy lube at big box stores, pharmacies, grocery stores, specialty stores, and online.

A Word From Verywell

While lube is widely available in pharmacies and big-box stores, there's often confusion about what lube is. Some may think it’s only for people in menopause or that there’s something wrong with someone who's unable to get "wet enough” during sex on their own. Instead, think of lube as something that not only makes sex more enjoyable and comfortable but also safer.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is lube healthy to use?

    Using lube is a personal choice, but many people find that it's a helpful—and healthy—part of their sex life. That said, if you have sensitive skin or certain conditions, it's important to find a lube that's right for you. That might mean finding products that don't have certain irritating ingredients and making sure that you cleanse your skin thoroughly after using the product.

  • Is lube necessary to use?

    The body makes natural lubricant, but it's not always enough. Sometimes, certain health conditions or changes related to getting older can decrease the natural production of lubricant. In these cases, you may need to use lube to make sex comfortable.

  • When should I use lube?

    If you're experiencing discomfort during sex because there's too much friction, using lube can help. It can also be useful for specific kinds of sex.

    Some people just like to add lube to their sex life for the novelty of it or to enhance their sexual experience even if they don't need its lubricating effect.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Miranda EP, Taniguchi H, Cao DL, et al. Application of sex aids in men with sexual dysfunction: A review. J Sex Med. 2019;16(6):767-780. doi:10.1016/j.jsxm.2019.03.265

  2. History of K-Y® Brand Jellies & Lubricants | Johnson & Johnson Our Story. K-Y® Brand Lubricant.

  3. Edwards D, Panay N. Treating vulvovaginal atrophy/genitourinary syndrome of menopause: How important is vaginal lubricant and moisturizer composition? Climacteric. 2016;19(2):151-161. doi:10.3109/13697137.2015.1124259

  4. Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. You asked it: Can you use lube with condoms?

  5. Laughlin-Tommaso S. Vaginal dryness after menopause: How to treat it? Mayo Clinic.

  6. Cornell Health. Condoms and lubricants.

  7. Begay O, Jean-Pierre N, Abraham CJ, et al. Identification of personal lubricants that can cause rectal epithelial cell damage and enhance hiv type 1 replication in vitro. AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses. 2011;27(9):1019-1024. doi:10.1089/aid.2010.0252

  8. Use and procurement of additional lubricants for male and female condoms: WHO/UNFPA/FHI360 Advisory note. World Health Organization.

  9. Mowat A, Newton C, Boothroyd C, Demmers K, Fleming S. The effects of vaginal lubricants on sperm function: An in vitro analysis. J Assist Reprod Genet. 2014 Mar;31(3):333-9. doi: 10.1007/s10815-013-0168-x

By Elizabeth Yuko, PhD
Elizabeth Yuko, PhD, is a bioethicist and journalist, as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Dublin City University. She has written for publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and more.