For years I’ve had readers come to me with questions about their sex toys and recurring yeast infections. More than one told me that they went to their doctor for a reaction (after using a porous sex toy) and the doctor would diagnose a yeast infection, usually. But I would still wonder if it was really an infection or rather a chemical burn from toxic materials. While it could be either, I understand a lot more now about the links between porous sex toys, cheap lube, and vaginal health thanks in large part to the education of Sarah Mueller who has done years of research for Smitten Kitten / BadVibes.org.
Misinterpreting Medical Studies?
The lightbulb went off as I was trying to do research on why we’d seen more than one article from lube brands claiming silicone lubes, synthetic oils, and natural oils are bad for vaginas (hint: only one of those actually is a universal vaginal no-no). I found a medical study that talked about finding an increased rate of yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis with folks who were using an “oil lube” but it seemed that the only thing mentioned was baby oil – a synthetic oil. And yes, those folks did have vaginal health problems moreso than folks using other lubes. But that study doesn’t give us the bridge to sweeping false generalizations that anything with any oil in it is bad for all vaginas1.
It did, however, inspire what I think is a really good theory about porous sex toys. It should be noted: I’m focusing here on porosity and the material composition, not the possibility of toxicity from mystery additives or lingering phthalates usage. Those can cause burning pain, but it’s off-topic for this post.
But first, I have to express a lot of disappointment in the doctors interviewed for articles about lube. One article I found was quoting Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., clinical associate professor of ob-gyn at Yale School of Medicine (big title, you’re inclined to believe her, right?):
Dr. Minkin strongly advises that you keep all oil-based lubes — including vaseline — out of the bedroom. They are difficult to wash out of the vagina, and they’re usually made of glycerin, which is essentially like glucose/sugar. That means it turns your vag into a breeding ground for bad bacteria, putting you at risk for a yeast infection. To make matters worse, oil and latex don’t get along, meaning it could wreck the efficiency of your condom, landing you with an unwanted pregnancy or an STI.
So that’s a really big, sweeping generalization which can scare folks out of actually decent oil-based lubes like Sliquid Oil or natural, plant-based oils, or The Butters. None of those are “made of glycerin”, and glycerin isn’t “essentially a sugar”, it’s a sugar alcohol. So far in the studies Sarah has researched, it hasn’t been specifically connected to yeast infections – however, it’s usually found alongside other crap ingredients and raises osmolality, leaving you more prone to infections.
Synthetic Oils In Sex Toys
Now, we know that the cheaper materials like thermoplastics (TPE, TPR), PVC, rubber, and the trademarked materials that are probably just a formulation of TPR, can re-infect you if you’ve used it whilst in the middle of an infection, as they cannot be sanitized. We know that bacteria can live and stick around in these materials; we know that fungus can grow and bring on molds in the material’s pores. These things have been talked about at length, but this theory of mine isn’t one I’ve heard yet:
If synthetic oils in the vagina can lead to increased infections because they trap and breed bacteria, and many porous sex toys are softened with synthetic oil2, and these sex toys are not chemically stable and can leach out that oil, the end result is quite possibly a synthetic oil in your vagina. People talk a lot about the porous materials breaking down, “sweating”, and feeling greasy. Before they know enough to know what this means, though, many folks still use sex toys like this. I wouldn’t want the liquid in my jar of horrors in my vagina, that’s for sure.
To make matters more sticky, chances are pretty good that if you’re using porous materials, you’re also using lubes that are hyper-osmotic, which can leave your cells dry and sloughing off which leaves you at greater risk for…you guessed it! Infections!
A Brief Interlude on Osmolality
There is more detail on the types of osmolality at The Big Lube Guide, but the most common situation is when the osmolality is high, i.e. hyper-osmotic. It’s the vampire situation – the lube comes in all charming at first and things seem okay. The lube feels really slippery, which is great! But it’s slippery because it’s drinking the moisture from your cells. When they have no more to give, they are dead and dry. The outer layer of cells will slough off and leave your mucus lining very vulnerable, like standing in a snowstorm without winter gear. STI transmission can increase and at-risk people are at greater risk for infections – this is the same group of people who need to use more lube than the average person.
Not many lubes on the chart over at The Guide are in the ideal range, which is iso-osmotic. And, frankly, not many lubes are listed, period. So how can we take an educated guess on the osmolality? Look at the ingredients. The top two ingredients to avoid are glycerin(e) and propylene glycol. Both of these greatly increase the osmolality of the lube and both can cause sensitivities (and for some, yeast infections).
Yes, even if the sex toy and its oils aren’t causing the yeast infection, even if the pH isn’t causing the yeast infection, you are still at risk because of these very common ingredients. Are you side-eyeing that lube bottle, yet?
pH and You
The vagina has a pH. Water-based lubes have a pH. When the two don’t match up, you can have three scenarios:
- Burning – this means the pH of the lube you’re using is too low
- Itching – this means the pH of the lube you’re using is too high
- Itching AND Infection – the high pH can cause simple irritation or bring on infection especially if it’s also a hyper-osmotic lube and you’ve got some unwanted guests lounging in there
So if you’re frequently having these issues, it’s time to switch your lube. You may even need to consider that you need a few different lubes, and get to know your cycle and how it affects your pH. Vaginal pH can range from 3.5 – 7 which is a large range – it makes sense that you could do best with a lower and a higher pH lube to best match your body. The easiest way to get this nailed down is by testing your pH with test strips like these. And, while you’re at it, test your water-based lube. If you’ve had the bottle for a while, test it again, as pH can change over time.
The other way to get around this factor is to use pH-neutral lubes like silicone or coconut oil, but this isn’t an option for everyone. Some dislike the feel of silicone and plant-based oils; some rely on latex condoms3. You could also consider a hybrid lube which, due to the normally-low silicone content, wouldn’t harm a silicone sex toy. The addition of silicone makes it potentially pH-neutral, we think. Studies done on hybrid lubes and osmolality or pH were vague or few so we don’t have as much knowledge, but it would be best to avoid the problem-child ingredients regardless. So far there are only two hybrid lubes I don’t hate: Sliquid Silk (regular or organic) and Good Vibe’s Please Cream.
A really well-rounded starter lube arsenal might look like this:
- Good Clean Love Almost Naked, a thick lube that comes in at a pH of 4 (buy from Shevibe, Smitten Kitten, or Amazon but check the expiration date)
- Sliquid Satin, pH of 6 (buy here or here)
- Sliquid Silk, the hybrid for when you don’t wanna bother with osmolality/pH but don’t want an oil-based lube
- A pack of pH test strips
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Please note: this is a lay-person theory based on research and logic and opinion. I am not a medical professional and I am not saying that this will happen for every person who uses porous sex toys and/or bad lubes. However, if you frequently get urinary tract infections, yeast infections, or bacterial vaginosis and use porous sex toys and/or bad lube consider making the switch to only non-porous sex toys and vag-friendly lubes to see if that clears up your problems. This is not to replace medical treatment or advice from your doctor.
- After seeing the similarities between the article from Coconu and Sutil, and then a few Google searches for funsies, I found the original article that Sutil copied / heavily borrowed from – a naturalist “doctor” who misread that study about oil-based lubes and extended it to try and claim that silicone oil is toxic. I’m as baffled as you are as to why a naturalist would declare coconut oil bad for all vaginas, given its antimicrobial properties and long-document usage for clearing up certain vaginal infections, but I digress and leave you with a sharp side-eye ↩
- tests show mineral oil in many of these sex toys ↩
- and, as we know, latex and oil are not compatible – I don’t know how long you’d have to wait in between using a plant-based oil lube and a latex condom to ensure the oil doesn’t render the condom useless against sperm and STIs ↩