When vaginal dryness started making sex uncomfortable, a 50-something friend decided to try a personal lubricant. But at the drugstore, she felt overwhelmed by the number and variety of products available—and too embarrassed to consult the pharmacist about which “lube” was best. My friend then asked me for info, so I called Irwin Goldstein, MD, coauthor of When Sex Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Banishing Sexual Pain.

Dr. Goldstein told me that many midlife women (and seniors, too) are delighted to discover how much enjoyment a little extra moisture provides. Personal lubricants can make sex more comfortable when…

  • Vaginal dryness results from menopause… use of certain medications, such as antihistamines, antidepressants or chemotherapy drugs… or stress (which raises adrenaline levels, in turn reducing blood flow to the internal organs and also reducing lubrication).
  • Intercourse lasts a long time (as it often may, considering that older men typically take longer to climax).
  • Using condoms. (Unless you are in a long-term monogamous relationship, condoms are advisable—even when pregnancy is no longer a concern—to protect against sexually transmitted diseases.)

What’s available? The four basic types of products are…

  • Natural oils—such as canola, corn, grapeseed, olive or peanut oil.
  • Water-based lubricants—such as Astroglide Liquid, Hydra-Smooth, ID Glide, K-Y Jelly, Liquid Silk and Probe.
  • Petroleum-based lubricants—such as baby oil, mineral oil, petroleum jelly and the Yes brand.
  • Silicone-based lubricants—such as Astroglide X Premium Silicone Personal Lubricant, Eros Bodyglide, Passion Premium and Wet Platinum.

Which type should you try? It depends on what is most important to you, Dr. Goldstein said. If you want a product that…

  • Is inexpensive—choose natural oils or water-based products.
  • Lasts a long time without being reapplied—choose silicone-based… avoid water-based products.
  • Carries no risk of staining sheets—choose water-based products.
  • Has no taste—choose petroleum-based products… and, of course, avoid products with added flavors.
  • Will not degrade latex condoms, diaphragms or sex toys—choose natural oil or water-based… avoid petroleum-based products.
  • Washes off easily with plain water—choose water-based… avoid natural oils, petroleum-based or silicone-based products.

Why read the fine print? Most lubricant ingredients are what the FDA calls GRAS—”generally recognized as safe”—for consumers. Still, certain ingredients can cause problems for certain people, Dr. Goldstein noted, so check labels before you buy. If you…

  • Are prone to vaginal yeast infections—avoid glycerin, a thickener… and look for a product labeled “pH neutral.”
  • Often experience allergic skin reactions—avoid propylene glycol (an emulsifier) and methylparaben (an antifungal preservative).

If you or your partner experience irritation or develop a rash after using a lubricant, stop using that product. Talk to your doctor about the need for treatment and ask for advice on products better suited to your needs.
What about those “warm” or “tingling” products? Dr. Goldstein pointed out that some personal lubricants include capsaicin, menthol and/or other ingredients designed to create a warm or tingling sensation on the skin. Such sensations enhance pleasure and intensify orgasm for some people… but other people find them irritating. The only way to tell how such a lubricant might feel to you is to give it a try.