Lube: it’s necessary for sex, but chances are you’re just grabbing the cheapest bottle of it at the supermarket without much thought. Or worse, maybe you’re just using any greasy household products within reach and slapping them on your genitals.

That ends here. There’s a whole wide world of personal lubricants out there, and knowing your way around this slippery market can make your sex life a lot smoother, or just a bit cleaner. Here’s a rundown of the key varieties of it.

Water-based lube

The bread and butter of the lube world, this is probably what you’re getting if you walk into the chemist and blindly choose one off the shelf. But while you can’t go wrong with it, water-based lube isn’t necessarily the optimal choice for every kind of sex.

These lubes, which include brands like K-Y Jelly, tend to dry up faster. That means you’ll need to reapply them more often to keep things gliding smoothly — especially if you’re doing anything anal, and doubly so if you’re using a condom. On the flipside, they’re usually good for anything involving a vagina, since most vaginas will add a bit of their own natural lubricant into the mix.

Another big advantage is that water-based lubes are the easiest to clean up — if you smear any on the sheets, it should wash out quickly. But this also means you can’t use these lubes in any watery situations, such as in the shower: it’ll just wash away. But that’s the only real downside to this relatively trusty (but perhaps not terribly exciting) all-rounder.

Shop water-based lubes here

Silicone lube

Like the yin to water-based lube’s yang, silicone-based lube covers the situations where its watery sibling falls short. It lasts longer and doesn’t need to be reapplied as much, so it’s good for, um, “dry” situations like anal sex, where silicone is arguably the norm. It’s a solid option for plain old masturbation, especially with a circumcised dick. Of course, it’s also completely acceptable for scenarios where you might prefer water lubes, such as vaginal sex, or while using a condom.

The big downside to silicone is that it’s messier — while it can be washed out of sheets, you’ll usually need specialty products beyond a washing machine and detergent. It’s also not ideal to use this lube with silicone sex toys, as it can degrade your toys over time. That said, it’s not like silicone lube will melt your toys on the spot, so you can probably get away with doing it occasionally, especially if you’ve invested in some higher-quality dildos.

Shop silicone lubes here

Oil lube (see also: DIY home lubes)

Some might consider oil lubes to be the red-headed stepchild of the lubricant family. Oil lubes might be a fraction smoother than silicone, but they’re particularly difficult to clean, and not suitable to use with latex condoms. Worse, they can trap bacteria, potentially causing infections in your anus or vagina.

For these reasons, there aren’t a whole lot of oil-based lubes on the market — instead, these lubes usually take the form of repurposed household products, like cooking oil. And while oil has its downsides, some of these are at least somewhat suitable to use as lube. While there haven’t been any notable studies on it, coconut oil is generally regarded as a safer oil-based lube. You could do worse than using other vegetable-based cooking oils (olive oil, sunflower oil) for lube, but tread carefully, as different bodies may have different reactions. Similarly, one brand of supermarket vegetable shortening named Crisco has a long history of being used in gay sex — it’s not readily available in Australia, but products like Copha (like you used in chocolate crackles as a kid) or Solite are similar.

Conversely, you don’t want to use Vaseline as lube — it’ll dry you out. Other skin products (like moisturisers) aren’t much better. Most of these have long lists of ingredients that might not be designed for use inside your cavities: use these at your own risk.

Flavoured lube

Sex has a particular smell, and it doesn’t mix terribly well with the scent of banana, strawberry, or most other fruits. This is why flavoured lube has never really clicked with me, or anyone else I’ve encountered – it seems like a novelty product rather than something genuinely useful.

Sex has a particular smell, and it doesn’t mix terribly well with the scent of banana, strawberry, or most other fruits.

That said, some people recommend it for oral sex — this doesn’t seem intuitive, since mouths are inherently self-lubricating. But if you’re sensitive to bodily smells, it might make sense. Otherwise, stick with the unscented options.

Shop flavoured lubes here

Numbing lube

Sometimes called “desensitizing lube”, these are a type of water- or silicone-based lube that’s used more for anal sex, since some people find it a little — or a lot — uncomfortable. Numbing lubes are a little controversial: the main argument against them is that they can numb your butt or vagina to the point where you might not be aware of an injury sustained during sex.

This isn’t an unreasonable criticism, and it’s certainly a good argument for avoiding numbing lube if you’re inexperienced with penetrative sex. But if you’re more aware of your body and its sensations, it can’t hurt to dabble in moderation. Most numbing lubes contain benzocaine, a mild anaesthetic; some, like Pjur’s Back Door silicone lube, contain natural oils that give a relaxing sensation without the full anaesthetizing effect.

Expensive lube

OK, fine. Any lube can be expensive, so it might seem unnecessary to separate this off as its own category. But it’s worth considering whether more expensive lubricants are worth it.

In my experience, there’s no major advantage to be gained by splashing cash on fancy lube, at least within the basic water- or silicone-based categories. (That said, it’s partly a question of personal preference and finances, so by all means, experiment with different brands if you’re feeling it.)

However, if you’re shopping for lubes with specialty ingredients, a higher price tag may be worth it — for example, American or Canadian cannabis lube smells great, and can be a unique experience, but it understandably costs more (and isn’t available in Australia for obvious legal reasons). Similarly, for numbing lubes, it may be worth paying a little more for a product that has, say, natural jojoba oil, rather than a cheaper, synthesized chemical, since you’ll be applying it to delicate body parts.

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