Can lubes increase the risk of HIV during anal sex?
A slew of recent studies suggest that using lubes for unprotected anal sex may increase the risk of HIV, and that some lubes may harm the rectum’s thin protective layer of cells (the epithelium). It’s premature to know which brands to avoid, says Marc-André LeBlanc, a lube advocate with the International Rectal Microbicide Advocates (IRMA). Most research has been done in laboratories, and it isn’t certain whether the findings translate to humans—or whether the products’ lubricating benefits outweigh their potential harm. But one fact is certain: “The best way to prevent acquiring HIV and STIs [sexually transmitted infections] during anal sex is still using male or female condoms,” LeBlanc says. “And we know that using lubes with condoms decreases the risk of the condom slipping or breaking—a big bonus.”
In the meantime, here’s a highlight of what scientists are investigating and how lube qualities might affect the success of microbicides:
- Polyquaterniums, a class of chemicals common in cosmetics, seem to increase HIV replication by almost four times in lab tests. A Population Council study found this ingredient in three of four HIV-enhancing Astroglide brand lubes: Astroglide Liquid, Astroglide Warming Liquid, Astroglide Glyercin & Paraben Free liquid and Astroglide Silken Secret.
- Osmolality refers to the concentration of salts, sugars and other substances (solutes) present in a lube. Hypo-osmolar lubes have a lower concentration of solutes than human cells and cause the cells to swell with water and burst. Hyperosmolar lubes cause cells to shrink and become brittle. Iso-osmolar lubes don’t affect cells because their concentrations are identical. Most water-based lubes are hyperosmolar and damaging.
- pH balance is acidic in the vagina and neutral in the rectum. Many lubes are designed for the vagina—does the difference in pH mean they affect the rectum differently?
- Good and bad bacteria live in a delicate balance in the vagina and gut. Will disrupting this balance make the rectum more susceptible to HIV?
- Viscosity is the slippery quality that gives lube its feel and texture. Glycerin, in water-based lubes, adds to viscosity. It also makes lubes hyperosmolar—and destructive to epithelium. When a rectal microbicide now in trials proved harmful to the epithelium, researchers solved the problem by lowering the glycerin content.
Charlene Dezzutti, PhD, with the Microbicide Trials Network and the University of Pittsburgh, looked at these qualities in six popular lubes. Some findings: Pré and Wet Platinum appear safest. Pré is the only water-based lube that is iso-osmolar and doesn’t damage the epithelium. KY Jelly wiped out entire colonies of good bacteria. Astroglide is the most hyperosmolar and most toxic to cells and tissue (Elbow Grease, ID Glide and KY Jelly have similar toxicity profiles). But Dezzutti also warns that more studies are needed before any official warning or suggestions can be issued.