Used to reduce friction and increase pleasure during intercourse, lubricants are about a $219 million market in the U.S. alone, according to the Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group.
But a handful of studies have called into question the safety of these sex aids, although none have shown cut-and-dried proof of risk. Some of the experiments have shown that personal lubricants can damage cells lining both the vagina and rectum, potentially making the body more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And one epidemiological investigation, published early this year, reported that participants who consistently used personal lubricants for rectal intercourse had a higher prevalence of STIs, such as chlamydia, than inconsistent users (Sex. Transm. Dis., DOI: 10.1097/olq.0b013e318235502b).
Complicating matters is that these same lubricants are being eyed as components of low-cost microbicide gels that could protect people from HIV. The thinking is that because so many people already use the sex aids, they will go right on using them for pleasure as well as protection once a virus-killing drug is added. But the new safety concerns about lubricants have made researchers consider reformulating the gels.
Still, most of the recent lab-based safety studies conducted on personal lubricants fall short of indicting the products. “We have signals that are concerning,” says Jim Pickett, chair of the International Rectal Microbicide Advocates (IRMA) group, a global network pushing for safe and effective STI-preventing products. “But we don’t know what they mean yet. Just because a lubricant causes cell damage in the lab, we don’t know whether that has anything to do with disease transmission in humans in the real world.”
In response, Johnson & Johnson, which dominates the personal lubricant market with its K-Y brand products, says, “We continually review new research as it evolves. K-Y brand products have provided effective lubrication and moisturization for millions of couples and are safe when used as directed.”
Right now, the Food & Drug Administration doesn’t typically require testing of personal lubricants in humans. The agency classifies them as medical devices, so the sex aids have to be tested on animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs. Rectal use of lubricants is viewed by the agency as an “off-label” application—use at your own risk.
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