As a couple trying to conceive the more you can learn about practical steps that can improve your chances of conception, the better. But sorting through the all of the available information and contradictory opinions can seem overwhelming. Additionally, while your well-meaning healthcare practitioner may recommend the use of a personal lubricant as an aid to conception, studies show that the toxic effects of lubricants on sperm are underreported.
As a result, some lubricants classified as non-spermicidal may not, in fact, be sperm-safe leading well-meaning but misinformed healthcare practitioners to recommend the wrong lubricants to their patients. The following information about personal lubricants cuts through the confusion so that you can find the right sperm-safe personal lubricant for you and, if needed, help educate your healthcare provider so that they can better assist you in your conception journey.
The basics of lubricant safety
Lubes contain a wide variety of ingredients, some of which contribute to the lubricating effects, and some that serve other purposes; for example, they may act as preservatives. Each ingredient also has its own potential side effects and each may interact with other ingredients to affect the overall characteristics of the lubricant, making it either safe or unsafe for conception.
When choosing a sperm-safe lubricant, two important characteristics to consider are:
Though highly concentrated lubricants might work better they can cause irritation and damage to the vaginal lining, impair sperm motility, and harm sperm DNA. Clinical studies indicate that the safest lubricants mimic the concentration of the lubricant your body produces naturally and they lead to the same rate of conception as the use of no external lubricant.
A woman’s vaginal pH is normally moderately acidic, ranging from 3.8 to 4.5 (neutral pH is 7 and anything above that is considered alkaline). However, sperm prefer an alkaline environment of around 7.2 to 8.5 on the pH scale and tend to lose motility when pH drops below 6.3. For fertility purposes, a lubricant’s pH should ideally be within the physiologic parameters that promote active, motile sperm.
Hyaluronic acid (HA)
A naturally-occurring lubricant your body produces, HA attracts and holds onto water molecules and is present in nearly every cell, particularly in your skin, joints, tendons, and ligaments. As a personal lubricant HA is both safe and effective when you are trying to conceive.
Additionally, HA serves an important role in fertilization that can aid conception. It surrounds egg cells and selects the healthiest sperm for fertilization. For this reason, HA is used as part of in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments.
A plant-derived polysaccharide molecule, its ability to attract and retain water makes it a useful thickening agent and lubricant in various products. Hydroxyethylcellulose is considered to be highly safe. It is used in artificial tear solutions and is also a commonly used ingredient in personal lubricants. Its safety was highlighted in a long-term study that concluded it is safe enough to be used as a placebo in experiments designed to measure the safety and effectiveness of drugs used to treat vaginal infections.
Sperm-safe product labelling
To assist consumers and improve the knowledge base of healthcare practitioners, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) devised a product labelling code, known as ‘PEB’. The ‘PEB’ designates personal lubricants and lubricant ingredients that are safe and compatible with sperm, eggs, the fertilization process, and the resulting embryo.
Ingredients that are considered fertility-friendly according to PEB standards include:
- Calcium and magnesium, which are both present in human semen.
- Clary sage, a medicinal herb that supports the vaginal microbiome and has antioxidant effects that may protect sperm.
- Arabinogalactan, a polysaccharide lubricant derived from plant gums, is sperm-safe and also provides antioxidant benefits.
- Fructose and galactose, sugars naturally present in semen. Fructose improves sperm motility under some conditions. Galactose is also a component of cervical mucous.
Ingredients to avoid
Certain ingredients are added to lubricants to increase their moisturizing capacity, but may be harmful when you are trying to conceive. Notable among these is a family of compounds known as glycols. Glycols kill beneficial vaginal bacteria, cause vaginal drying, and have been shown to decrease sperm motility. Examples of glycols include:
- Glycerol monolaurate
- PEG-8 propylene glycol
Other potentially harmful ingredient include preservatives which are harmful to vaginal cells, such as:
- Sorbic acid
- Benzalkonium chloride
Please consult your healthcare practitioner to decide which personal lubricant/vaginal moisturizer best meets your needs when you are trying to conceive.