By Chris D. Meletis, N.D.
You might have heard about the negative effects of using conventional lubricants. For example, they often contain harmful toxins known as parabens. That might be why some conventional lubricants reduce sperm motility and interfere with fertility.1 Parabens are also of concern because they’re linked to cancer. At first glance, switching to natural oils like coconut or olive oil may seem like a good solution. However, this is not something I recommend to my patients. In this article, I’ll talk about why I suggest my patients avoid using oils like coconut or olive oil as natural vaginal lubricants.
Your Water-Based Secretions
The vaginal and mucus membranes of the body produce aqueous—in other words water-based—secretions and not gooey oil slicks. These watery secretions play an important role. They escort dead cells and bacteria out of the body. This helps keep the vagina healthy. When you introduce an oil intravaginally, you’re changing a mostly water-based environment to an oil-based one. We really don’t know for sure how this will affect the ability of the secretions to carry bacteria out of the body.
Supplementing Your Natural Fluids with Lubes
For many women, vaginal lubricants add to their quality of life significantly. For example, many women find that using an intimate lubricant to supplement their natural secretions during intercourse increases the comfort and pleasure of sex, and this is often especially true for couples who are actively trying to get pregnant, as intercourse tends to be less spontaneous for these couples. And, some fertility medications have the unfortunate side effect of causing vaginal dryness, making it almost a necessity to use a fertility lubricant when trying to conceive. Another time when women look for lubrication is when doing perineal massage to help stretch the perineal tissues in preparation for labor and delivery. But, if you happen to be one of the few women that make it through your adult life without wanting or needing to use a lubricant, your luck just might change when you hit menopause. Vaginal dryness is one of the most common and most irritating symptoms of menopause, forcing lots of women to seek out daily vaginal moisturizers and intimate lubricants.
Protecting Your Friendly Flora
When you find yourself in need of a lubricant, keep your vaginal health in mind. In a woman’s vagina, there is a fine balance between good and bad bacteria. These bacteria living in your vagina are known as the microbiota. To keep the vaginal microbiota healthy, your body must maintain a healthy pH. Although food derived oils like coconut and olive oil don’t have a pH, it is possible that their introduction into the vaginal region could change the vagina’s pH—and damage the microbiota. To my knowledge, there are no studies on this topic, but it is a possibility you should consider before using coconut or olive oil as lubes.
I’m also concerned that using oils can create what’s known as a biofilm. Bacteria create these biofilms as a sort of shield to protect them against antibiotics. Using coconut or olive oil or other natural oils as a lubricant could lead to a hard-to-penetrate biofilm. This in turn could result in an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Again, there haven’t been any studies conducted on this as far as I know, but it is a concern of mine. It is true that monolaurin, a component of coconut oil, can protect against Candida albicans biofilms. However, that was in a cell culture experiment, and the study did not use coconut oil as a whole, only the monolaurin component.2
Oils Gone Bad
When oils are exposed to light they oxidize. This basically means that as an oil sits on a shelf it goes rancid over time. Rancid oils contain damaging free radicals. There’s a lot of research on the harmful effects of eating rancid oils. For example, when rats ate rancid coconut oil, it caused free radical damage in the liver and kidneys.3 Eating oxidized oils can also cause weight gain.4 In addition, eating rancid coconut oil can cause an increase in very low density lipoprotein cholesterol (VLDL-C) and triglycerides as well as decreased levels of the antioxidants vitamin E and C.5 Plus, eating lots of rancid oils can give rise to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.6
I am not aware of any studies that show topical application of rancid coconut or olive oil can damage the mucous membrane. However, given the toxic nature of oils gone bad internally, it makes a lot of sense that they can also damage the mucous lining of the vagina, and gives me good reason to suggest that women should be wary of using these oils as vaginal lubricants.
Some Research To Be Concerned About
One study found that olive oil as a lubricant impairs sperm motility, which is concerning for couples trying to conceive.7 Sperm need to be mobile in order to fertilize the egg. Another study found that application of coconut oil to the mother’s vagina was one of a number of risk factors for the development of tetanus in the newborn.8 In a third study of two women who had undergone a type of treatment for urinary stress incontinence known as tension-free vaginal tape (TVT), using olive oil as a lubricant was linked to the development of bladder stones.9 You may also know that oil-based lubricants can break condoms.10
Mirroring Health-Promoting Vaginal Fluids
The fundamental premise behind natural medicine is that we want to mimic our body’s own natural processes. That’s why I believe using a paraben-free, water-based lubricant or perineal massage gel works better than creating an oil spill in the vagina. I recommend to my patients a lubricant that’s pH matched to fertile cervical mucous and that doesn’t get in the way of sperm function. It’s also helpful if the lubricant or perineal massage gel has a salt concentration similar to that found naturally in the vagina.
About Dr. Meletis
Dr. Meletis is an internationally recognized naturopathic physician, an accomplished author, and respected educator in the field of natural medicine. Dr. Meletis was honored as a ‘Naturopathic Physician of the Year’ by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians for his commitment to education and helping those in need. His mission is simply, “changing the world’s health, one person at a time”.
He has authored 14 books on subjects ranging from natural medicine interactions to fertility enhancement and has published over 80 articles in publications such as Natural Health and Natural Pharmacy. Dr. Meletis has served as the Dean of Naturopathic Medicine and Chief Medical Officer for the National College of Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM) for seven years and later as the school’s Senior Science Officer. He sits on several medical advisory boards and has worked with Oregon Health and Science University on a grant from the National Institute of Health to further educate MD graduates on natural medicine.
1. Agarwal A, Deepinder F, Cocuzza M, et al. Effect of vaginal lubricants on sperm motility and chromatin integrity: a prospective comparative study. Fertil Steril. 2008 Feb;89(2):375-9.
2. Seleem D, Chen E, Benso B, et al. In vitro evaluation of antifungal activity of monolaurin against Candida albicans biofilms. Peer J. 2016 Jun 22;4:e2148.
3. Abarikwu SO, Njoku RC, Onuah CL. Aged coconut oil with a high peroxide value induces oxidative stress and tissue damage in mercury-treated rats. J Basic Clin Physiol Pharmacol. 2018 Jul 26;29(4):365-76.
4. Narayanankutty A, Anil A, Illam SP, et al. Non-polar lipid carbonyls of thermally oxidized coconut oil induce hepatotoxicity mediated by redox imbalance. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2018 Nov;138:45-51.
5. Srinivasan KN, Pugalendi KV. Effect of excessive intake of thermally oxidized sesame oil on lipids, lipid peroxidation and antioxidants’ status in rats. Indian J Exp Biol. 2000 Aug;38(8):777-80.
6. Staprans I, Rapp JH, Pan XM, Feingold KR. The effect of oxidized lipids in the diet on serum lipoprotein peroxides in control and diabetic rats. J Clin Invest. 1993 Aug;92(2):638-43.
7. Anderson L, Lewis SE, McClure N. The effects of coital lubricants on sperm motility in vitro. Hum Reprod. 1998 Dec;13(12):3351-6.
8. Hlady WG, Bennett JV, Samadi AR, et al. Neonatal tetanus in rural Bangladesh: risk factors and toxoid efficacy. Am J Public Health. 1992 Oct;82(10):1365-9.
9. Kato K, Hirata T, Suzuki K, et al. Bladder stone caused by olive oil following TVT operation. [Article in Japanese, Abstract in English.] Nihon Hinyokika Gakkai Zasshi. 2005 Jul;96(5):568-71.
10. Steiner M, Piedrahita C, Glover L, et al. The impact of lubricants on latex condoms during vaginal intercourse. Int J STD AIDS. 1994 Jan-Feb;5(1):29-36.