We know that approximately 65% of American women report using personal lubricants during sex, according to research. But research also tells us that most lubes—and even saliva!—slow down, stop, or even kill sperm. So, is lube safe for fertility? And which lube should you use when you’re trying to conceive?
Lube: types and ingredients
Most lube fits into one of four categories: oil-based, water-based, silicone-based, or a “hybrid” with more than one ingredient. Each has its own pros and cons.
- Oil-based lubes (such as baby oil, coconut oil, or massage oil) are long-lasting, but can degrade condoms and are more likely to irritate the vagina.
- Water-based lubes (such as Natalist’s The Lube) can be used with condoms or sex toys, but can evaporate more quickly.
- Silicone-based lubes (such as Uberlube) last longer than water-based and are condom-safe, but will deteriorate silicone sex toys.
There are certain ingredients everyone should avoid in their lube: Glycerine, flavoring, any kind of sugar, petroleum jelly, preservatives like parabens, propylene glycol, benzocaine (a “numbing” ingredient in some lubes), and antibacterial ingredients like chlorhexidine gluconate are all potentially irritating or toxic ingredients.
But if you’re trying to conceive, there are additional ingredients to look out for: silicone, and—obviously—spermicide, sometimes listed as nonoxynol-9 or N-9.
Why use lube while trying to conceive?
Well, it makes baby-making a little more fun. Lube decreases friction and improves the sexual experience for both partners.
Many heterosexual couples who are actively trying to conceive are having sex on a specific timetable, typically every day or every other day during their fertile window (the 5 days prior and 1 day following ovulation). Having sex on a schedule—and perhaps even any anxiety or stress around conception—may mean either partner isn’t as relaxed or aroused as they’d hope to be during intercourse.
Research seems to quantify this. One study examined the self-reported experiences of 900 TTC couples. Researchers found that 88% of couples stated that, while trying to conceive, vaginal dryness negatively affected intimacy sometimes, often, or always. Additionally, 76% reported that vaginal dryness episodes increased some or a lot while trying to get pregnant. Lube can be helpful in making sex more comfortable, and in this study, 26% of couples often or always used lube when trying to conceive.
Additional considerations come into play for couples using Clomid (clomiphene citrate), a fertility medication. Clomid works by blocking estrogen production, and estrogen is key to vaginal moisture—so women who are taking Clomid may experience vaginal dryness, even if that’s never been an issue for them before. Lubricant can be very helpful for patients using Clomid for timed intercourse.
A note: Vaginal dryness can be a symptom of early menopause or a hormone imbalance. If this is a frequent problem for you, consult your doctor.
How lube affects sperm
First, a caveat: Personal lubricant is not a contraceptive. Even though studies show that lube can impact sperm’s ability to swim, it’s always possible that unprotected sex could result in a pregnancy. If you’re not interested in getting pregnant right now, you should be using a reliable form of birth control, like the pill, the ring, or an IUD.
Laboratory studies have demonstrated that most commercially available or commonly used lubricants have a significant negative impact on sperm’s motility, AKA the ability of the sperm to “swim” toward the egg. Some even suggest that lube has a “toxic” effect on sperm. Here’s a summary of the research available on lube and sperm fertility.
Lube and fertility research: a summary
|Lubricant type or brand||Findings||Studies|
|K-Y Jelly (water-based)||In multiple studies, K-Y Jelly—including the “Sensitive,” “Warming,” and “Tingling” product lines— significantly decreased sperm motility. In one study, it also resulted in an increased number of sperm with DNA damage.||Anderson et al, 1998; Agarwal et al, 2007; Kutteh et al, 1996; Sandhu et al, 2014; Mackenzie et al, 2019; Mowat et al, 2014|
|Astroglide (water-based)||In multiple studies, Astroglide caused dramatic decreases in sperm motility—with nearly no movement—after 30 minutes of contact with the semen sample. In another, sperm exposed to Astroglide were nonmotile and nonviable (essentially, dead) after 60 minutes.||Agarwal et al, 2007; Kutteh et al, 1996; Sandhu et al, 2014|
|Replens (silicone-based)||In one study, Replens resulted in a 60% decrease in sperm motility after 30 minutes of contact with semen. In another, Replens had a toxic effect on sperm, rendering them nonviable after 60 minutes of contact.||Agarwal et al, 2007; Kutteh et al, 1996|
|FemGlide (water-based)||FemGlide caused a significant decrease in sperm motility, as well as an increase in the percentage of sperm with DNA damage.||Agarwal et al, 2007|
|Aquagel (water-based)||Aquagel appears to reduce sperm motility by about half after 10 minutes of exposure to semen.||Mackenzie et al, 2019|
|Sylk (water-based)||In one study, Sylk significantly reduced the number of live sperm in the semen sample, as well as sperm motility.||Mowat et al, 2014|
|Baby oil||In one study, baby oil had no significant impact on sperm motility. In several others, it had a very small impact on sperm motility, but did have an impact on the percentage of live sperm in the sample.||Anderson et al, 1998; Sandhu et al, 2014; Mowat et al, 2014|
|Olive oil||Olive oil significantly reduced sperm motility. In one study, 15 minutes of exposure to olive oil reduced sperm motility by 42%.||Anderson et al, 1998|
|Canola oil||In one study, canola oil had no detrimental effects on sperm. In another, it reduced sperm motility slightly (by about 6%).||Kutteh et al, 1996; Sandhu et al, 2014|
|Sesame oil||Sesame oil had a significant impact on sperm motility, reducing it by about 30% after 5 minutes of exposure.||Sandhu et al, 2014|
|Mustard oil||Mustard oil does not appear to have a detrimental effect on sperm motility, but did cause “hyperactivation” in sperm (typically only seen as the sperm approaches the egg).||Sandhu et al, 2014|
|Saliva||In one study, saliva caused the greatest reduction in sperm motility; the percentage of motile sperm reduced by 50% in the first 5 minutes of exposure and movement reduced to near zero within 15 minutes.||Anderson et al, 1998|
In general, it appears that oil-based lubricants have the least impact on sperm motility and vitality. Silicone-based lubricants impact motility, but not as significantly as water-based lubricants. Water-based lubricants appear to have the greatest detrimental effect on motility and vitality, immobilizing sperm after just five minutes and killing a significant percentage of sperm within an hour (according to one study).
Will using lubricant while trying to conceive affect my chances of getting pregnant?
So, laboratory studies demonstrate that lube can significantly impair sperm. But what does that mean for real-life use?
Interestingly, it seems that lube use doesn’t have much of an effect on chances of natural conception. A few different studies have looked at lubricant use among women who are trying to get pregnant. In one, nearly 300 participants kept a record of their menstrual cycles, intercourse frequency, and use of lube. Approximately 43% of women reported that they occasionally (29%) or frequently (14%) used lube while trying to conceive. Participants who used lube—even regularly—were no less likely to become pregnant than those who never used lube.
Another study looked specifically at time to pregnancy (or how long it took a couple to conceive), and how it correlated with lube use. Over 6,000 women categorized as “pregnancy planners” completed questionnaires about their use of personal lubricants while trying to conceive. Researchers found that fertility rates were not decreased for lube users, and that use of lubricants did not seem to impact time to pregnancy.
How do we explain this difference between lab studies and real-life statistics? It’s possible that, in real-life use, sperm are exposed to lower concentrations of lube, or shorter exposure times, than in the above-mentioned laboratory studies. It’s also possible that most male partners have semen parameters that are robust enough to withstand the detrimental impact of lube and still result in a pregnancy.
However, for infertile couples or male partners who are already dealing with low sperm count, poor sperm motility, or other issues, experts recommend skipping the lube (or using a truly fertility-friendly brand) to maximize pregnancy chances.
There are only a few lubes on the market that are truly “fertility-friendly,” meaning that they have a minimal impact on sperm. What makes a lube safe for fertility? No harmful ingredients like silicone or petroleum, and a pH that matches that of semen and cervical fluid (approximately 7, or neutral). Many lubes are slightly acidic to match the pH level of the vagina (3.8–4.5), which could contribute to their toxicity to sperm.
Interestingly, not every lube that’s marketed as fertility friendly is evidence-based. (If you’ve read our guide to fertility supplements, this should be unsurprising.) One study found that Forelife’s “Sperm-Safe” Lubricant actually had a more detrimental effect on sperm than KY Jelly.
The gold standard of fertility friendly lubes is PreSeed. PreSeed is formulated to match the pH and concentration of “fertile fluids” such as cervical fluid. PreSeed’s effect on sperm has been analyzed in several lab studies (Agarwal et al, 2007; Sandhu et al, 2014; Mackenzie et al, 2019; Mowat et al, 2014); in nearly every study, it was found that PreSeed did not significantly decrease sperm motility or vitality or increase sperm DNA damage. (In one study, PreSeed appeared to decrease sperm motility by about 4% after 30 minutes, but prolonged exposure did not result in further damage.)
Second best, according to research, is ConceivePlus. This fertility lube is also pH-balanced, and has added beneficial nutrients like magnesium and calcium to their formula. The number of live sperm and the motility of sperm exposed to ConceivePlus was only slightly less than the sample exposed to PreSeed.