Are Vaginal Lubricant Products Harmful?

I’ve heard that using vaginal lubricants can cause diseases. I don’t understand why this warning wouldn’t be on the packages. Can you tell me how dangerous it is to use these products?

– July 5, 2013

You probably have heard about results of a study showing that some lubricants can damage vaginal tissues, making women more susceptible to such sexually transmitted diseases as herpes, chlamydia and HIV. The research team, from UCLA, found that two-thirds of the women participating in the study reported using intravaginal products and among this group, 75 percent of women age 50 and older reported using a vaginal lubricant in the month before they entered the study; overall, 70 percent of the study participants who used products  – women ranging in age from 18 to 65 – said that they had used vaginal lubricants in the previous month.

The investigation, published online in March, 2013, by the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, was based on answers to a questionnaire about use of vaginal products by 141 sexually active women in Los Angeles. These women were tested for vaginal infections when the study began and again one year later.   The researchers found that yeast infections and bacterial infections were most common among women who reported using products such as Vaseline petroleum jelly and baby oil – substances that are not intended for insertion into the vagina. The study didn’t examine how using these lubricant products might lead to infections, and the researchers noted that some of the women may have been using Vaseline to relieve symptoms of pre-existing bacterial vaginosis (BV). This common condition can cause abnormal discharge (sometimes with a strong odor), burning during urination, and itching, although some cases of BV are asymptomatic.

Among the women who reported using petroleum jelly as a vaginal lubricant, 40 percent had BV compared to only 18 percent of women who did not use it. For the record, the manufacturers of Vaseline told the Reuters news agency that the product is intended for external use only (and says so on the package) and that the company doesn’t recommend use of Vaseline as a vaginal lubricant and has “not performed any testing to support this use.”

The study also found that 44 percent of the women who reported using intravaginal oils, including baby oil, tested positive for Candida, the organism that causes yeast infections, compared to only five percent of women who did not use oils.

Of the participants in the study who reported using commercial lubricants or other over-the-counter products for vaginal use, 45 percent reported using vaginal washes such as products consisting of mixtures of vinegar and water. The UCLA researchers suggested that the higher rate of infections might stem from effects of the products on the pH and flora of the vagina, which could enable harmful bugs to proliferate. (The good bacteria that normally reside there produce acids that help protect against infections and overgrowth of other microorganisms.)

On its website, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women who need lubricants during sexual activity use water soluble or silicone based products to prevent irritation or sensitivity; silicone-based products tend to be more slippery. ACOG also warns against using petroleum jelly, mineral oil or baby oil with condoms, since these products can cause the condom to break.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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