While working the night shift at the Pleasure Place near Dupont Circle, Janea Kelly often fields questions from customers regarding the small shelf of lubricants offered at this "erotic boutique."
''Safety is not always people's first choice,'' Kelly, the night manager, says with a seemingly nervous chuckle. ''It's what feels good.''
But if you heed the recent research from some experts in HIV prevention, customers may want to pay more attention to the potential harm lubricants can cause. Maybe.
In a recent study of popular over-the-counter and mail-order lubricants, a majority were found to be toxic to cells and tissue, possibly rendering a user more vulnerable to infection of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Salts and sugars in the lubricants can cause a cell's internal chemistry to be thrown off, killing the lining of the anus or vagina.
''When you get rid of your first line of defense, you are opening yourself up for opportunities for infection from other pathogens,'' explains Charlene Dezzutti, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh who works with HIV prevention and led the research, presented in late May at the 2010 International Microbicides Conference in Pittsburgh.
An unrelated study by a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles found that those who used lubricants were three times more likely to have rectal STDs.
While any research linking choice of lubricants and anal sex to increased HIV-infection rates is certain to grab the attention of sexually active gay men, a closer look diffuses the news. Despite the two studies' findings, other local public-health experts say lubricant selection and use for safety is second to condom use for protection against STDs.
''Anal sex without a condom, which I do not recommend, is dangerous for [STD] infection whether or not any lubrication is used,'' says John Curtin, a physician's assistant at the Dupont Circle Physicians Group, where a majority of patients are gay men.
Despite lubricants' newfound toxic effect, Dezzutti concurs: ''If it were me, I would be looking for the condom-friendly lubricants."
While lubricants are designed to make sex more comfortable, their effect on disease went virtually unstudied until recently. In Dezzutti's research, workers tested the effect of the six products on different cell types, rectal and cervical tissue, and bacteria. The popular PRE lube served as the study's control sample, as it has roughly the same concentration of dissolved particles – sugars and salts – as the cells themselves. When a lubricant has too high a concentration of sugars and salts, cells in the area eject water to correct the imbalance. Then, Dezzutti explains, those cells become dry, wither and die.
Astroglide, a water-based and therefore condom-compatible lubricant, was found to be the most toxic of the lubes studied to cells and tissues. KY Jelly was also highly toxic to "good" bacteria in rectal tissue. The team found Elbow Grease and ID Glide had intermediate effects in terms of toxicity. Dezzutti and coworkers found PRE and Wet Platinum to be the safest -- a fact touted by Wet's CEO.
Michael Trygstad, founder and chief executive of Trigg Laboratories, makers of Wet Personal Lubricants, says his company's products don't include the ingredients found harmful to cells and tissue.
''The subject of the research study, the Wet Platinum product we market, does not contain these dissolved salts or sugars,'' Trygstad said.
None of the six products tested show measurable anti-HIV activity. However, the researchers note they plan to further study lubricants affect on the susceptibility to HIV infection in tissues.
Whether your destination for lube is the corner pharmacy, your favorite sex-toy shop or even online, the selection goes beyond what provides the most pleasure. Kelly of the Pleasure Place recommends silicon lubricants for safety and performance because they don't dry out, unlike water-based gels. In general, all water-based and most silicone-based lubricants are compatible with condoms. Some silicon-based lubricants have petroleum ingredients in them, rendering them harmful to latex condoms. To be safe, the best rule of thumb is to check any lubricant's packaging for clear verbiage labeling it as safe for use with latex condoms. And whatever the research may say about lubricants and one's immune system, the "condom plus latex-safe lube" formula is one that's proven to best reduce HIV/STD transmission during anal sex.
''In fact, using condoms without lube increases the chance they will break, which increases [STD] transmission,'' Curtin advises. ''Overall, I highly recommend condom use with a water-based lubricant whenever in engaging in anal sex.''
For the informed consumer, the findings may give you something to think about the next time you're shopping for lube -- but not enough to cause alarm.