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Can your favorite lubricant make HIV spread faster?

In 2011, when a research team evaluated 41 of the hundreds of personal lubrication brands currently available, including a majority of those singled out as favorites in a survey of anal sex participants, they found that none of the products tested showed signs of hindering HIV transmission. But four of them —Astroglide Liquid, Astroglide Warming Liquid, Astroglide Glycerin & Paraben-Free Liquid, and Astroglide Silken Secret — were shown to significantly enhance the replication of the virus in the in vitro laboratory studies conducted by the nonprofit Population Council.

All four contain one of two ingredients: polyquaternium or polyquaternium-15, two kinds of polymers. According to the study's lead author, Population Council research technician Othell Begay, polyquaterniums were not found in any of the other lubricants evaluated.

Earlier research had indicated that personal lubricants containing the organic compound nonoxynol-9 may cause damage to rectal tissue, providing a direct passageway for HIV strains to reach known target cells like lymphocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells, which are located beneath skin surrounding the rectum. However, study coauthor and Population Council senior research investigator Jose Romero is quick to point out that these findings were all derived from test tube studies.

"What happens in the laboratory environment does not always happen in the human body," Romero says. "In fact, lubricants generally appear to play an important role in preventing the spread of HIV. Intercourse without them can damage cells by creating friction, which could [also] cause tears, thus possibly promoting HIV transmission."

While the Food and Drug Administration requires lubricant manufacturers to test for vaginal irritation, there are currently no mandatory tests to ensure rectal safety. There's also little to no research on the effect of products not specifically marketed as lube'while research has shown that household items like vegetable oil are commonly substituted for personal lubricants, the effect of these products on HIV transmission and tissue damage is not known.

For the time being, it may be best to look at the ingredient list of your favorite lubes and make a change if you see olyquaternium or polyquaternium-15.

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