Safety of Sexual Lubricants

Research conducted by Population Council scientists resulted in a better understanding of the relative safety of personal lubricants used during sexual intercourse.

The Issue

Water-based personal lubricants, when used in combination with condoms, reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. Evidence indicates that such lubricants reduce friction, which lowers the risk of tears in condoms and in delicate vaginal and rectal tissue—thus reducing the transmission of STIs.

However, Population Council research showed that water-based lubricants containing nonoxynol-9 (N-9), a commonly used spermicide, could actually increase the risk of HIV and STI infection. Findings suggested that N-9 damaged rectal tissue, increases the risk of skin tears, providing a pathway for HIV infection. Findings also suggested that N-9 could increase the probability of herpes simplex virus infection.

Concerned that other water-based lubricants might also not be as safe as previously believed, Council researchers undertook cell-based studies to evaluate the safety of a variety of commonly used lubricants.

The Progress

Council researchers tested more than 40 water-based lubricants, the majority of which had been identified as popular anal lubricants in a survey conducted by the International Rectal Microbicide Advocates.

The studies, conducted on tissue samples in a lab, showed that the majority of the tested lubricants enhanced the replication of HIV and damaged rectal cell monolayers, which may increase the risk of HIV transmission. The findings also suggested that an entire class of compounds frequently used in lubricants, called polyquaterniums, might increase HIV risk.

The Impact

Council findings regarding the safety of N-9 prompted the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require that all contraceptive/spermicidal products containing N-9 bear a warning against use in anal intercourse. The World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, and FHI 360 cited Council findings in an advisory note calling for procurement agencies to avoid lubricants containing N-9, polyquaterniums, and high levels of glycols.

Principal Investigator

Key Staff (2)

  • Thomas Zydowsky Director of Biomedical Research and Pharmaceutical Development, HIV and AIDS, Center for Biomedical Research
  • Loreley Villamide-Herrera Biomedical Program Manager, Center for Biomedical Research

Journal Articles (4)

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