Oil vs water vs silicone based lube: which type is right for you?

Not all lubes are created equal. Which is the slickest, which lasts longest, and which won't do a number on your sheets?

Aubergine with lubricant
(Image credit: Dainis Graveris / Pexels)

There's a world of lube out there. But for all the different formulations, brands and packages, there are really only three major varieties, defined by their base ingredients. Water-based lube is the most common and probably the most universal, silicone-based lube is the slickest, and oil-based lube has its issues but definitely holds its own. 

So which is the lube for you? You can check out our guide to the best lubes for our top selections broken down by situation. But for a comparison of the benefits of silicon vs water vs oil based lubes, read on.

Silicon vs water vs oil based lube: slickness

While there are those who will espouse the virtues of oil, the chemical truth is that silicone is the slipperiest of the lubes. If you really want things slick, that's great, but it may not actually be the best thing. Most people need more than a little friction to get off, and too much silicone is plenty fun, but it might make things just a little too slippery.

Oil-based lubes can be plenty slick, but not for long – making water-based lubes the perfect middle point. The fact that they get slightly stickier over time might even be a benefit, helping add a little grip when things need to come to a climax.

Silicon vs water vs oil based lube: thickness

The thickness of your lube will often depend more on its formulation than its base. In general, though, you'll find the highest viscosity in oil-based lubes – think things like petroleum jelly – then silicone, with water-based at the bottom of the table. 

If you want a thick water-based lube, however, there are plenty on the market. The downside with these is their extra ingredients: the thickening agents used can often leave the lube feeling a little sticky or gummy once a proportion of the water content has been absorbed - something which can be resolved with a little saliva or an extra application of lube, but definitely worth considering for longer sessions.

Silicon vs water vs oil based lube: staying power

Silicone lube is the longest-lasting there is, tending to retain its slipperiness long after water- and oil-based formulations absorb into the skin.

Oil, remarkably, seems to be the shortest-lived type of lube, though that's perhaps slightly misleading: once it has absorbed into the skin, the skin itself will be softer and smoother. Think the difference pre- and post-massage. You may not be quite as slippery, but you'll certainly be more pliable.

Though water-based lubes don't hang around quite as long as silicone, they'll generally last long enough to get the job done. It depends on the particular lube - some stay slicker longer, some go sticky quite quickly.

Silicon vs water vs oil based lube: versatility

Every lube has its specialist subject. Oil-based lubes often double as a solid addition to foreplay, with runnier options as useable for a sensuous massage as they are for lubricating other things. Silicone lubes go a long way, and they tend to form more of a lasting barrier between surfaces – great if you're looking to reduce friction during anal play, for example, or if either party is a little sore. 

Water-based lubes are very neutral, with some being pH balanced to help avoid yeast infections or irritation of soft tissues. They also don't fight with certain materials in the same way as others do – you should never mix oil lubes with condoms, for example, or silicone lubes with silicone toys, but you're good to slather on as much H2O lube as you can handle.

Unless, that is, you're looking to incorporate actual water. Water-based lubes are pretty useless for encounters in the shower seeing as they're easily washed away, but others will stay put nicely.

Silicon vs water vs oil based lube: clean up

Another win for water here: although there's generally some residue left behind from the non-water ingredients in water lubes, it's generally easy to wash off and it won't ruin your sheets. Oil, on the other hand, is a bit of a nightmare for your upholstery, and should be used sparingly if at all. 

Silicone doesn't tend to make too much of a mess, but it does hang around for a long time if you don't actively do something about it. 

But wait! What's the secret fourth type?

There's actually a fourth kind of lube which we haven't discussed thus far, and it's worth considering: a hybrid lube mixes a water and silicone base to (in theory) offer the best qualities of both. They're slippy, compatible with condoms, last a long time, and many state that they work fine with silicone sex toys too - though this is something you should definitely research before buying, lest your favourite dildo earn itself a tacky skin. 

Hybrids don't tend to include a very high silicone content – it's usually somewhere around 10-12% – so they're easy to clean up without the downsides of oil. If you're in the market for a first lube, or just want to try an extra-slippy water lube (or moderately less slippy silicone lube) they're an interesting option.

James is T3's sex toy and male wellness expert who's been exploring the topic of sexual happiness for a decade. He knows it's not what you've got, it's how you use it – and how clean you keep it.