Using the correct product for your vagina can be puzzling sometimes. With so many genital health products on the market, choosing the right one for your needs can get a little confusing.
For example, lubricant and moisturizer – what’s the difference? Both are designed to help women treat vaginal dryness when sex is painful, but the purpose of each is not the same.
Read on to learn the difference between lubricants and moisturizers, what benefits they provide, and whether you need both, or just one.
What’s the Difference Between Lubricant and Moisturizer?
The main difference between lubricants and moisturizers is time – namely, the length of time that the benefits of each are intended to last. That said, there are several other differences too, for example, when each is used, why, and how often.
What is Lubricant Used For?
Lubricant is used to moisten the vaginal opening to help with smoother, and less painful, penetration with penises, vaginal dilators, kegel weights, pelvic wands, or sex toys. It also increases arousal, eases vaginal tightness, and helps women with dyspareunia to enjoy more comfortable sex. During intercourse, lubricants reduce friction and help improve your sexual pleasure.
Essentially, lubricants benefit the user during penetration and sexual activities, but the benefits cease after intercourse. Lubricants do not help to treat vaginal dryness (atrophy), infections, painful sex (dyspareunia), or their underlying causes.
Why Use Vaginal Moisturizer?
Vaginal moisturizers, on the other hand, are designed to rejuvenate and rehydrate the genital skin. When applied regularly, moisturizer helps to relieve vulvar irritation, swelling, and redness associated with vaginal infections or shaving.
Vaginal moisturizers, especially those which are organically made, also revive the genital skin after childbirth, as well as rejuvenate thinning vaginal tissues in postmenopausal women. In addition, they help to relieve vaginal atrophy associated with a drop in estrogen during breastfeeding, perimenopause, and menopause.
In contrast to lubricants, vaginal moisturizers are used regularly, rather than for one specific experience. Similar to moisturizing the skin on your face, vaginal moisturizers are designed to provide a protective coating for the genital skin and continue to hydrate the skin for hours after it has been applied.
What Causes Vaginal Dryness?
Menopause is considered the most common cause of vaginal dryness when a drop in estrogen reduces the production of natural lubrication and causes the skin of the vaginal walls to become thinner and less elastic. The same can happen when women are breastfeeding due to a drop in estrogen.
Other causes of vaginal dryness include:
- Cancer treatment
- Hysterectomy or surgery on the reproductive organs
- Returning to sex after some time
If Your Dry Vagina Goes Untreated, What Will Happen?
Vaginal dryness is always the result of something else, whether it is a drop in estrogen, menopause, or surgery. And it is important to treat, not only the dryness but also the underlying cause because even if you don’t want to have sex again, the vagina’s natural environment is at its healthiest when it is moist.
While lubricants and vaginal moisturizers certainly help to treat vaginal dryness and painful sex, they will not treat an underlying vaginal infection. So if your pain persists, even with the use of both lubricant and moisturizers, schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine the root cause.
If vaginal dryness is left untreated, women will not only continue to experience painful sex, but itching and irritation down there will become part of daily life. In addition, women will become more prone to vaginal infections and urinary tract infections, both of which require medication as treatment.
How Often Should You Apply Vaginal Moisturizer?
If you are suffering from vaginal dryness or irritation, female health experts recommend applying vaginal moisturizer 3-7 times per week. How often each woman needs to re-apply will come down to how it feels down there.
Vaginal moisturizer is designed to coat the vulva (outer vaginal lips) like a lip balm and continue rehydrating dry vaginal skin for up to 24 hours after application. However, if you feel dry after a few hours, it’s perfectly safe to apply some more.
Do You Need Both Lubricant and Moisturizer, Or Just One?
That depends. If you are simply looking to improve your sexual experience then lubrication may be all you need. If you are suffering from a vaginal infection, then a vaginal moisturizer will help to soothe irritation, swelling, and itching on the outer genitals. It is better to refrain from intercourse when treating a vaginal infection, but lubrication can come in handy when returning to sex after recovering.
If you are suffering from vaginal dryness after radiation, or during breastfeeding or menopause, however, you will gain more benefits from using both.
Lubrication will help to ease vaginal tightness and painful penetration, as well as improve your sexual experience. And vaginal moisturizer will help to soothe and revive dry or irritated skin on the outer genitals.
Can Moisturizer Be Used As Lubricant?
Preferably not. Lubricants are designed to ease penetration, improve sexual pleasure, or aid with the use of dilators, kegel weights, pelvic wands, and vibrators. Vaginal moisturizers, however, are designed to hydrate and soothe the outer genitals and could irritate hypersensitive vaginal skin when used internally.
Some vaginal moisturizers, for instance, still contain parabens, which can contribute to hormonal fluctuations. That said, organically made vaginal moisturizers, like the natural vaginal moisturizer Enchanted Rose balm from Intimate Rose, are 100% natural, contain no irritating ingredients, and can safely be used to moisturize internally as well as externally.
All in all, it is best to use moisturizer to hydrate and soothe the outer genitals and apply lubricants only when engaging in sexual activity or dilator therapy.
Are There Different Types of Lube?
There are three types of lubricants – water-based, silicone-based, and oil-based. The main differences between the three are:
- How slippery they are
- How easy they are to clean
- How long they last
- Whether they can be used with condoms or sex toys
Water-based lubes are considered the best all-purpose lubricants. They do not degrade silicone sex toys, dilators, or latex condoms, and are easy to clean. Although they might not be as slippery as the other two, water-based lubes, are considered the safest lubricant on the market.
Silicone-based lubricants are slipperier than water-based lubes, lasting longer for sex play in the bath or shower, for instance. However, they cannot be used with many types of condoms, (always check the label) and they will damage sex toys or dilators made from silicone.
Oil-based lubricants are the most slippery, but they are also the hardest to clean and the oil in these lubricants will damage all condoms.
Lubricants and vaginal moisturizers are both recommended for easing painful sex caused by vaginal dryness, but there are differences between the two. Ideally, lubricant is used to improve sexual experiences and arousal, or to help insert Kegel weights, sex toys, or vaginal dilators when the vagina feels dry or tight.
Moisturizer, on the other hand, is recommended to rejuvenate and rehydrate the outer genital skin when dryness sets in.
If you are experiencing vaginal dryness or painful sex, try using an organically-made vaginal moisturizer to rehydrate your outer genitals and water-based lubrication to relieve tightness and increase pleasure during intercourse. However, if your pain persists, schedule an appointment with your doctor for further analysis.
Mayo Clinic – Vaginal Atrophy - https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vaginal-atrophy/symptoms-causes/syc-20352288
The American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists - Experiencing Vaginal Dryness? Here's What You Need to Know - https://www.acog.org/womens-health/experts-and-stories/the-latest/experiencing-vaginal-dryness-heres-what-you-need-to-know
National Library of Medicine - Treating vulvovaginal atrophy/genitourinary syndrome of menopause: how important is vaginal lubricant and moisturizer composition? - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4819835/
Health - Are Vaginal Moisturizers Effective? And Do You Need One? - https://www.health.com/condition/sexual-health/moisturize-your-vagina
The North American Menopause Society - Effective Treatments for Sexual Problems - https://menopause.org/for-women/sexual-health-menopause-online/effective-treatments-for-sexual-problems
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.