What Is The Difference Between Water And Oil-Based Lube?

Discover the differences between water and oil-based personal lubricants – from ingredients and safety, to which is best suited for specific sexual activities.
Colorful Macro Abstract Photograph Of Oil Bubbles Floating On Water

Oil-based and water-based personal lubricants can be excellent additions to your sex life, yet they’re very different from one another in terms of the way they perform, what type of sexual activity they are used for — and their ingredient list.

The primary difference between water and oil-based lubes is that:

  • Water-based lubes can be formulated in a variety of ways but their main ingredient is always water. This results in a lubricant that is lightweight in texture, mimicking the body’s natural lubrication more closely than most oil-based products are able.
  • Oil-based lubes are made primarily from oils that are often plant-derived. They may occasionally contain trace amounts of water, but many of them do not. Oil-based lubes tend to have a heavy, thicker texture compared to water-based lubricants.

Although both water-based and oil-based lubricants are safe for anal and vaginal sex, they are not equally appropriate for oral sex, nor are they both compatible with all condoms or toys.

For this reason, it’s vital to understand not only their similarities but their differences so you can choose the right personal lubricant for your needs.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Everything Lube hub, an in-depth and evolving resource that comprehensively explores all aspects of personal lubricants from the different types and how to use them, to ingredients and safety — created to help you achieve the sexual pleasure you deserve.

What Are The Main Differences Between Water And Oil-Based Lube?

The primary difference between water-based and oil-based lubes lies in their base ingredients, which we’ll talk about more in just a bit.

What each type of lubricant is made from affects the way it performs and the activities its best suited for.

Water-based lubricants:

  • Are best for vaginal sex but may be appropriate for oral sex and anal sex depending on their ingredients and texture
  • Are lightweight and feel more natural
  • Work with all condom types, dental dams, and diaphragms
  • Can be safely used with any sex toy material
  • Are easy to clean up
  • Will not stain bedding or clothing
  • Cannot be used in the shower or bath

Oil-based lubricants:

  • Are best for vaginal and anal sex but should not be used during oral sex
  • Have a thicker texture that provides more cushion
  • Will break down condoms made from latex or polyisoprene
  • Are only safe for condoms made from polyurethane, nitrile, or lambskin
  • Can degrade sex toys made from silicone or latex
  • Are not easy to clean up after sex
  • Will stain bedding and clothing
  • Are waterproof and can be used in the bath or shower
  • May contain oils derived from nuts and should be avoided by those with nut allergies

→ For other lube comparisons, see:

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What Sexual Activities Are Water-Based And Oil-Based Lubes Typically Used For?

As we mentioned earlier, the ingredients used to make water-based and oil-based lubricants affect not only their textures but the activities for which they’re best suited.

Water-based lubricants are used for:

  • Vaginal sex
  • Anal sex (provided their texture is thick enough)
  • Oral sex (provided their ingredients are safe for ingestion)
  • Sexual activity that doesn’t involve water
  • Sex using any type of condom, dental dam, or diaphragm
  • Sex that involves toys made from any material

Oil-based lubricants are used for:

  • Vaginal sex
  • Anal sex
  • Sexual activity that involves water, such as in the bath or shower
  • Sex using condoms made from polyurethane, nitrile, or lambskin
  • Sex that involves toys not made from latex rubber or silicone

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What Are The Differences In Ingredients Between Water-Based And Oil-Based Lubricants?

Personal lubes are designed to minimize friction during sexual activity, but there are some key differences in the ingredients commonly used in water-based and oil-based lubricants.

  • Water-Based Personal Lubricant Ingredients 

Water-based lubes are slick and light in texture, which makes them ideal for all kinds of sex.

As their name suggests, water is the main ingredient in water-based lubes — and it is one that is not typically found in large quantities among oil-based products.

Water-based lube is formulated in many different ways.

Aside from water, you’ll also find hydroxyethylcellulose, a cellulose-derived thickening agent that is found in plant cells.

Aloe vera and carrageenan are two ingredients commonly found in more natural — and less synthetic — versions of water-based lube.

These two plant-derived ingredients add to a lube’s jelly-like consistency and slick feel.

Additionally, you’ll often find glycerin in some water-based lubricants, although the ingredient is one we recommend avoiding because it has been linked to changes in vaginal flora, as we’ll talk about in our overview of lube safety below.

→ Learn about the best water-based lubes personally curated by Emily Deaton.
  • Oil-Based Personal Lubricant Ingredients

Oil-based personal lubricants are moisturizing and very rich in texture. They are soft and glidey, and they can often do double duty as a massage oil.

Oil-based lubes tend to have more plant-based ingredients in them, using natural oils that are often obtained from organic sources.

Coconut, sweet almond, jojoba, and vitamin E are oils commonly found in oil-based sex lubes and they are completely safe for your body — as long as you don’t have an allergy or sensitivity to any of them.

Particularly if you have a sensitivity or allergy to nuts, it is vital to read through the ingredient list of any oil-based lube you’re considering because many of them derive their oils from nut-based sources.

In addition to the oils mentioned above, you may occasionally find aloe vera in oil-based lube, as well.

→ Learn about the best oil-based lubes personally curated by Emily Deaton.

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Are Water-Based And Oil-Based Lubes Safe?

Water-based sex lube is completely safe to use with all condoms and sex toys when used as directed during vaginal and anal sex.

Some water-based lubricants are designed to be edible for use during oral sex, but it’s important to note that not all of them are.

With the addition of natural flavorings, edible lubricants can add a sweet and dessert-like taste during oral sex, although you certainly don’t want to drink them straight from the bottle. Always use them as directed.

You’ll want to check the pH of your water-based lubricant to make sure it is safe for vaginal use (around 4.5) or anal use (ranging from 5.5 to 7).

Additionally, the osmolality of water-based lubricant is important to your rectal and vaginal health, as well.

If you’re unsure about pH or osmolality as they pertain to lubes, all of the water-based lubricants we reviewed have safe pH and osmolality levels.

Oil-based lubricants, on the other hand, should not be swallowed — doing so can result in nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Not only that, but their thick consistency is a very real choking hazard.

Oil-based lubes and condoms don’t always mix.

Oil causes damage to latex and polyisoprene condoms, which can lead to breakage that can result in an unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of STDs and STIs.

The only condoms that are safe for use with oil-based lubricants are those made from lambskin — which do not offer protection from STDs or STIs — nitrile and polyurethane.

Additionally, oil-based lubricants should not be used with latex toys, as they will degrade their material.

  • What Ingredients Should You Avoid In Water-Based And Oil-Based Lubricants? 

If you are prone to bacterial yeast infections, you may want to avoid water-based lubes with ingredients that are high in sugar alcohol, such as sorbitol and glycerin.

Both ingredients could raise the pH levels in your vagina and cause unwanted bacterial growth or yeast infections.

Flavoring is another ingredient that may add sugar, including those obtained from a natural or organic source, so it’s best to avoid using sweetened lubricants for vaginal or anal sex.

In both water-based and oil-based personal lubes, it’s wise to avoid products that contain parabens, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, fragrances, or dyes, as these ingredients can be irritating to sensitive tissue.

Additionally, parabens have been suspected to act as endocrine disruptors and untreated mineral oil has been linked to the development of cancer.

As we talked about earlier, many oil-based personal lubricants derive their ingredients from nut-based sources, which is of great concern to anyone with a sensitivity or allergy to these.

With any new lubricant you may be considering — water-based or oil-based alike — it’s smart to do a patch test on your inner elbow to watch for potential reactions.

  • Can You Swallow Water-Based Or Oil-based Lube?

You can safely swallow water-based personal lubricants in small quantities. When using a flavored or edible lube, always defer to the product’s instructions.

As we mentioned earlier, however, it is best to not ingest oil-based lubricants because their thick texture can coat the esophagus, becoming a choking hazard if too much is swallowed.

Additionally, they can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if taken internally.

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How To Choose Between Water-Based Or Oil-Based Lubricants

When it comes to choosing between a water-based or oil-based lube, you’ll want to consider exactly how you intend to use them.

Are you looking for a lube for anal sex? To use with toys? For oral sex? Will you be using condoms? Do you want something you can use in water?

These and similar considerations will factor into your decision as to which lube is right for you.

The main ​​difference between oil-based and water-based lube lies in their base ingredients, how they perform in the bedroom, and the way they interact with condoms, diaphragms, dental dams, and sex toys.

So, is water-based or oil-based lube better? That really depends on how you intend to use your lube and what your needs are.

Understanding their differences and knowing what you need will help you to know how to choose what type of personal lubricant to use.

→ For other lube comparisons, see:

When To Use A Water-Based Lubricant

Water-based lubricants are popular because of their overall versatility, lightweight consistency, and ease of use.

You may want to select a water-based personal lubricant if you:

  • Plan to have vaginal, anal, or oral sex
  • Intend to use condoms, diaphragms, or dental dams of any kind
  • Prefer a lightweight product that feels more like natural lubrication
  • Plan to use sex toys made from any material
  • Prefer using a product that requires minimal effort to clean up
  • Are worried about your bedding or clothing being stained
  • Do not plan to use it in the shower or bath
  • Don’t mind reapplying more lube as needed

If you plan to use the same water-based lube for vaginal and anal sex, you’ll want to make sure that your lube’s pH is compatible with both activities.

Additionally, it’s also important to consider a lubricant’s osmolality and choose a product with a safe osmolality to prevent vaginal or anal irritation.

One of the best things about water-based personal lubricant is the easy cleanup — it doesn’t stain sheets or clothing because it’s water-soluble.

Even if you use half a bottle of water-based lube during sex and there’s a lot of it left behind on your sheets, this type of lube effortlessly disappears in one round of laundry.

Additionally, water-based personal lubricants can be safely used with every type of condom, dental dam, and diaphragm, and they do not degrade the material of any sex toy.

The only major downside to water-based lubricants is that being water-soluble, they cannot be used during sex in the bath or shower.

Water-based lubes also tend to dry out faster than oil-based lubricants, which means they may need to be reapplied during long sex sessions.

Some water-based personal lubricants are made with completely natural or organic ingredients and are ideal for those who prefer to use lubricants that are free from synthetic chemicals.

  • How To Tell If A Personal Lubricant Is Water-Based

When reading the ingredient list on a product, water-based personal lubricants may include things like glycerol or glycerin, propylene glycol, sorbitol, or cellulose. They can come in gel, jelly, or liquid form.

Water-based lubes are lighter than oil-based lubes and are typically clear in color, barring the absence of coloring additives.

→ Learn about the best water-based lubes personally curated by Emily Deaton.

When To Use An Oil-Based Personal Lubricant

Oil-based lubes have a thicker consistency compared to water-based lubricants and are generally made from naturally-derived oils. Many oil-based products can double as massage oils.

You may want to select an oil-based personal lubricant if you:

  • Plan to have vaginal or anal sex
  • Don’t plan on using it to have oral sex
  • Do not intend to use latex or polyisoprene condoms
  • Prefer a thicker product that offers more cushion
  • Plan to use sex toys that are not made from latex or silicone
  • Do not mind putting more effort into cleaning up
  • Are not worried about your bedding or clothing being stained
  • Plan to use it in the shower or bath
  • Want a product that can be used during sensual massage
  • Don’t want to apply lube more than once during sex
  • Are careful about reading ingredient labels if you have a nut allergy

Basic science teaches us that oil and water don’t mix, which is exactly why oil-based lubricants are perfect for sex in wet settings like the bath, shower, hot tub, or pool.

They also have a heavy, thick texture that makes them a great choice for penetrative sex — particularly anal intercourse.

Oil-based lubricants are perfect for many sexual activities, but they are not compatible for use with latex or polyisoprene condoms.

Condoms made from polyurethane, nitrile, or lambskin are safe to use with oil-based lubricants, but lambskin condoms do not offer protection from STDs or STIs.

Additionally, oil-based lubricants will also break down latex diaphragms, dental dams, and sex toys.

Finally, oil-based lubes will stain fabric. If you’re at all concerned about staining, your best bet is a quality water-based lubricant.

As we mentioned earlier, many oil-based personal lubes use oils derived from nuts so if you have a sensitivity or allergy to them, always take the time to read the ingredient list carefully before purchasing or using one.

  • How To Tell If A Personal Lubricant Is Oil-Based

When reading the ingredient list on an oil-based lube, the list may include various oils like coconut, sweet almond, jojoba, or Vitamin E. They usually have a thick, liquid consistency.

Oil-based lubes are heavier than water-based lubricants and may have a subtle golden hue depending on the types of oils used during the manufacturing process.

→ Learn about the best oil-based lubes personally curated by Emily Deaton.

Bottom Line 

All lubes are not created equal.

Certain sex acts pair best with specific types of lubricants, which is why it’s so important to understand the differences between water-based and oil-based lubricants.

No matter what kind of sex you plan to have, choosing the safest one for your body and your sexual activity will keep you healthy, happy, and safe.