“Virtually all hyperosmolar lubricants need to be reformulated… Normally the mucosal lining of the vagina is a good barrier to infection all by itself, but when that barrier gets compromised, all bets are off.” -Richard Cone, biophysicist Johns Hopkins
My work making personal lubricants never seemed like the answer to a national health crisis until now. As many of you know, I was inspired to start Good Clean Love to solve my own intimacy needs. The burning and itching that followed my intimacy didn’t really leave me longing for more. Developing products that made loving healthier was a personal quest more than a business idea. Along the way, I have learned quite a bit about the business side, although still really struggle to understand the greed motive that drives so many large multinational corporations to do things that people individually they would never do on their own (Monsanto is practically synonymous with environmental destruction in my mind). Even though Monsanto’s genetic engineering and planting pesticides inside of food is well known, it seems impossible to stop them.
Recently I have found a similar dilemma playing out much closer to home within the context of personal lubrication, which has now become more of a public health crisis than the personal quest it began with. The competitive personal lubricant field dominated by multinationals like Johnson and Johnson is a $219 million dollar industry for good reason. Lubrication is a fact of life. In any relationship where working parts are at play, whether it is an engine, a dinner party or an evening of love, everything works better when it is “well oiled.” Lubrication allows for glide, ease and effectiveness. When lubrication is working well, it is invisible, a thought we don’t have. When it isn’t working, we know it immediately, although not always by its name. An engine without oil locks up in minutes, awkward silence and uncomfortable gazing down into the lap is immediately recognizable.
Lacking lubrication in intimacy is remarkably common, and happens for a myriad of reasons. Aging, childbearing, nursing and even common medications like anti-histamines and anti-depressants often cause vaginal dryness and contribute to pain during sex and the associated low libido that develops. The physiological symptom of dryness turns into a waning sex drive because natural lubrication is a primary signal of arousal. Early sexual memories often include moments of vaginal wetness or erections seemingly unbidden. Those memories are stored deep in the body, and triggering them can be as easy as finding the right lubrication.
The competitive lubricant market is saturated with choices, but when you look beyond the packaging and brand hype to the ingredient panel, it quickly becomes clear that still, over 95% of OTC and adult lubricants are made with petrochemical ingredients including propylene glycol, a primary derivative used not only in such products as anti-freeze and brake fluid and polyethylene glycol, used in laxatives and oven cleaner. These are largely preserved with methyl- and propyl-parabens, which have been shortlisted as potential carcinogens and are not allowed in the EU.
When I first began making lubricants and learning about the petrochemicals ingredients that were my competition and were making me sick, I thought that my burning reactions was due to a sensitivity or allergy that was exacerbated by other issues like vaginal dryness or pain with sex. Now ten years later, new lubricant studies conducted by biophysicists who were commissioned by NIH to create a buffer gel for the prevention of HIV, began analyzing the current petrochemical-based lubricant market. They were shocked by what they learned.
The petrochemical lubricants that dominate the market are damaging the genital and rectal tissue they intended to protect. The problem is a bio-physics issue, not an allergic sensitivity. Human skin tissue cells weigh around 300 isomoles, whereas KY warming jelly’s cellular weight was 30 times that of skin cells. Hyperosmolar lubricants literally squeeze human tissue cells to death. The warming sensation you feel is actually the skin cells shriveling up and falling off the tissue, causing small tears and compromising the natural immune functions of the genital walls.
The most disturbing result of the use of hyperosmolar lubricants is that women who use them are 13 times more likely to contract bacterial vaginosis compared with women using nothing at all. This is a public health crisis because the number of women impacted by BV is staggering. Depending on ethnicity, between 29 and 51% of all women are walking around with BV. Worse still, 84% don’t know that they have it. Yet for as silent as this condition can be, the impact it has on susceptibility to other more lethal STIs and HIV is even more alarming. Women with BV are 60% more likely to contract other sexually transmitted illnesses, including HIV. And although researchers aren’t clear about the mechanism of HIV transmission, women with BV are three times as likely to transmit the disease to their male partner.
Personal lubricants may be the last frontier of health care products to experience it, but there is a revolution afoot and there are many brands of organic and all-natural products that are entering the market to replace the dangerously toxic effects of bad chemistry. Take care of the most sensitive tissue in your body by reading labels and listening to your body’s adverse reactions. Good sex isn’t about feeling the burn; it is about feeling the warmth of someone you love. Choose wisely and realize that the body can teach the mind, and arousal and sexual enhancement may be as close as the bottle on your night stand.