Vancouver gay health advocates say more information is needed after two recent US studies suggested a link between the use of personal lubricants for anal sex and rectal sexually transmitted infections [STIs] and toxicity.
“We’re following the whole research and discussions of [the study],” says Hans Bosgoed, clinic coordinator at the Health Initiative for Men [HIM]. “We find it important for people to know.”
“What my study showed was that there was an association between the frequency of reported rectal lubricant use and rectal sexually transmitted infections,” says Dr Pamina Gorbach, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of California in LA.
Of the nearly 900 men and women she surveyed from two US cities between 2006 and 2008, those who used lubricants within the year before engaging in receptive anal intercourse were three times more likely to have contracted a rectal STI.
Gorbach says questionnaires regarding sexual behaviour and routine rectal examinations showed correlations between lube use and STIs.
The study focused on bacterial sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, and did not address viral infections such as HIV.
Another unrelated study by Dr Charlene Dezzutti of the University of Pittsburgh found many water-based lubricants can be toxic to rectal tissue and cells.
Dezzutti found four of the six lubricants she tested in the lab had a toxic effect on colorectal and ectocervical cell and tissue samples commonly found in the rectum and cervix.
The “toxic” lubes were all water-based. They were Astroglide, KY Jelly, Elbow Grease and ID Glide. Safe brands were PRE, which is also water-based, and silicon-based Wet Platinum.
Dezzutti’s study found certain water-based lubricants are toxic to cells because they contain higher concentrations of sugars and salts, which when introduced to the body prove toxic on surface cervical and rectal cells that work as the body’s “first line of defence against infection,” she says.
Astroglide is regulated by the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA), a company spokesperson pointed out when questioned about the findings.
“Product testing, such as irritation, toxicity, cytotoxicity and condom compatibility required to obtain FDA market clearance, found Astroglide to be a safe and effective vaginal and anal lubricant for both patient and personal use,” the spokesperson said.
Mark Gilbert of the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) says the findings are too preliminary to cause serious concern. But they do “speak to the importance of looking at the question of lubricants and safety,” he says.
He says more research is needed.
“We need to look at them all. We need to understand the properties of these lubricants,” he says, adding “not all water-based lubricants are bad.”
Gilbert says the safest thing gay men can do for anal sex is use condoms with lube. Consumers needn’t be concerned about the water-based lube packages distributed by the BCCDC, he adds, since they were not samples mentioned in the study.
Bill Colman, also with the BCCDC, suggests anyone concerned about water-based lubes can use silicon-based ones instead.
Dezzutti and Gorbach both stress their findings are preliminary, unproven, unpublished and should not be cause for mass sexual panic.
“We don’t have proof…. Even though we are seeing this [result] in the labs, we don’t know [what it means] yet,” Dezzutti says.
“I don’t want people scared off lube. We want people to buy better lube,” adds Gorbach.
“We don’t want to decrease sexual pleasure, but the goal [of the study] is to ensure the lubes are not contributing any harm,” she says.