Fact and Fiction Interview Series: Sarah Mueller of the Smitten Kitten

This post originally appeared on a former iteration of this site on December 29th, 2014. It has been reposted here for posterity. 

The Fact and Fiction Interview Series is a series of interviews that were conducted for an article that will be coming out soon, talking about the safety of different sexuality pleasure and health products. Not all are created equal; some come under more rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness while others are not, and therefore more likely to have issues in material or formulation.

Sarah Mueller is a Sex Educator at the Smitten Kitten, a retailer that has been one of the leading voices against toxic sex toys and now, irritating and toxic lubricants. Sarah, in conjunction with the Smitten Kitten, did extensive research on the information available about lubricants and, with this information, created a guide. I’ve written a little bit about this here, and you can see scans of the guide and more information here

A lot of these formulations use ingredients that are safe on skin, but don’t account for the fact that mucous membranes function very differently than the skin on a face or arm.

Sexational!: Tell me a little bit about you- who are you? What do you do, and how did you start doing what you do?

Sarah Mueller: So I went to Macalester College and got my BA in English Lit, with minors in Art History and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies… about half way through my junior year I decided I no longer wanted to be a Professor of Literature but, instead, a sex positive educator. I reached this conclusion because all of my free time at college was spent organizing for our Queer Union, planning Sex Positive week events, writing our newspaper’s sex advice column, researching for my weekly sex talk radio show, etc. That’s how I got involved with Smitten Kitten initially, getting them to come do workshops for the student organizations I co-chaired. I started working at the Smitten Kitten the day after my graduation, May 15th 2012, as a sales associate & sex educator. Over the last 2 and 1/2 years I’ve taken on more responsibilities: coordinating erotic art shows in the store, managing our inventory, working on our website, training– doing whatever needs getting done. That’s one of the best parts of working for a small business, you can kind of get a taste for everything.

There were a lot of [lubricant] ingredients I wasn’t familiar with, so I started looking them up; the more I learned the more I realized no one was making sure these ingredients were okay for genitals.

The lube research started as a spreadsheet I wanted to make to help our staff easily check ingredients in lubes without having to look at the list on all of the bottles when a customer knows that they’re allergic or sensitive to something in particular, which happens all the time. There were a lot of ingredients I wasn’t familiar with, so I started looking them up; the more I learned the more I realized no one was making sure these ingredients were okay for genitals. No one was publishing anything about if these ingredients had been tested on genitals. A lot of these formulations use ingredients that are safe on skin, but don’t account for the fact that mucous membranes function very differently than the skin on a face or arm. It all kind of snowballed from there…

S!: What’s it like working at the Smitten Kitten? I ask this mostly because I wish I could work at the Smitten Kitten; the things you do just seem so awesome.

SM: It’s pretty amazing, sometimes I lose context and then I think about what it would be like working anywhere else, and remember how lucky I am. It’s extremely rewarding working with customers, knowing that by simply having a frank conversation about their sexuality I am making a difference. There are days when I have a profound experience with a customer and they will come back and thank me weeks later. That’s the best part. I also work with some of the coolest, smartest, funniest people at Smitten Kitten. That’s actually tied for the best part. Anywhere you work not everyone is going to be best friends, or at least not all of the time, but it’s such a privilege to work with people who care so fiercely about sexual health, education, inclusivity, equality, and pleasure. I learn so much from my co-workers, and from Jennifer, the owner. Next it would be the encouragement I’ve gotten from Jennifer, as well as the entire staff, but she’s the boss so I couldn’t have done all this lube research without her. She trusted me to make it worthwhile and thinks lube safety is as important as I do.

At one point during my research I went to my gynecologist and asked her what kind of lube they used for pelvic exams, it was off- brand surgilube. My Dr. didn’t know what was in it and the packaging didn’t say.

S!:  So, you recently worked on a lube guide for the Smitten Kitten (Which is awesome, by the way!)- can you tell me about the process? How and why did you start this project?

SM: I started the project in Feb. 2014, just intending to make a simple guide for staff. The more I learned the more I realized there were a lot of ingredients I didn’t understand, and neither did anyone I worked with, and labeling and marketing of lubricants are often misleading. My co-workers and I continuously experienced customer questions or requests surrounding lube that we weren’t confident in answering, or at least not as confident as we’d like to be. Certain skin sensitivities and allergies that we hadn’t even heard of before kept coming up, and just generally our customers were struggling to find lubes that they liked using and that didn’t leave them with stickiness, itchiness, or more severe skin conditions.

At one point during my research I went to my gynecologist and asked her what kind of lube they used for pelvic exams, it was off- brand surgilube. My Dr. didn’t know what was in it and the packaging didn’t say. You can’t even find the ingredients on the company’s website, the only way I found them was by looking up their patent. I called Surgilube proper to try to find their ingredients list, but it’s “proprietary” so they wouldn’t tell me anything. I had to ask about individual ingredients and they would say yes or no. I think this is a good example of why this project become more serious and more important to me and Smitten Kitten. If gynecologists and doctors didn’t know what they are putting in patients’ bodies, they can’t really know how it’s affecting those bodies.

There are also a lot of people that don’t realize there are many, safer alternatives to K-Y and Astroglide so they think that they don’t like lube at all because the only lubes they know are really, objectively, not helping their genitals out. If anything a lot of the lubes that are most easily accessible are the most potentially harmful.

There’s also a lot of anecdotal experience that spurred me on, I am diabetic and prone to yeast infection; I’ve struggled to find a water-based lube that works with my body and personally just don’t like the feel of silicone lubes. That’s actually how I figured out there was glycerin in Beyond Seven’s condoms prelubricated with an aloe-based lube; I could just tell it changed my normal vaginal mucus. I followed up on their website but they don’t list the ingredients in the lube for their condoms anywhere, so I emailed the company and sure enough, the lube on those condoms has glycerine (and parabens). We aren’t going to carry them anymore at Smitten Kitten because of this.

I talk to people everyday that have various negative reactions to lubricants similar to my experiences, many of them blame their body instead of changing products. There are also a lot of people that don’t realize there are many, safer alternatives to K-Y and Astroglide so they think that they don’t like lube at all because the only lubes they know are really, objectively, not helping their genitals out. If anything a lot of the lubes that are most easily accessible are the most potentially harmful.

A lot of studies are poorly crafted, or are based on inaccurate information. A lot have used K-Y Jelly as a “placebo control” which basically makes at least half of their results inaccurate by my standards.

S!: What was the research process like?

The research itself started slow, I have no background in biology or chemistry, so it took me a while to learn enough to even be able to grasp the content of the studies I found. My brother is a molecular-biologist so he actually helped a lot at the beginning, explaining concepts like osmolality, or helping me figure out how to tell the “bad” science from the good. A lot of studies are poorly crafted, or are based on inaccurate information. A lot have used K-Y Jelly as a “placebo control” which basically makes at least half of their results inaccurate by my standards. I’ve re-read many studies four or five times as I learn more and find more current sources because some research from as recent as 2008 is already outdated.

I ended up finding way more information than could fit in one pamphlet, and  I also wanted to give customers an easy to use guide for finding the right lube for them. I envisioned a Cosmo-style “which pop star encapsulates the deepest essence of your being” style quiz to guide people to their best lube match. We ended up with something more like a flow chart but I think it still works. This is  also where my co-workers really came through for me, Half our staff helped me edit, prioritize information, organize it into something cohesive and understandable (my style in pretty much every aspect of life is “more is more”… I’m wordy, and I assume if I want to know everything about something that everyone else must, too). One of my co-workers also works full time as a graphic designer, so she put in a bunch of extra hours creating the design of the pamphlet. We wanted to get it printed before we went to Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit in August, 2014, so the last couple of days before we left were intense; I wanted to put way more into the pamphlet than could physically fit, that’s partially why it’s gigantic (fold out map style). Also, I wanted the guide chart to be a part of it that could double as a poster. Anyway, Jennifer and our graphic designer amazingly helped my edit and format until the last minute. We did a second run of the pamphlet about two months later which is a little bit improved and streamlined. I learned a lot about editing that first go-round!

Now I’m working more on other projects, but once those are complete I plan on expanding the resources we have on badvibes.org, doing more research, and teaching classes on lube. And maybe trying to change the FDA regulations on lubricants as medical devices… which I don’t know how to do exactly, but I believe that something really needs to change there.

The testing done by the FDA involves rabbits’ eyes and vulvas but no evaluation of effects on human genitals, or realistic use during sexual activities.

S!: Can you talk a little about the things you wanted to include in the guide but didn’t have space for?

SM: The biggest section I took out was about regulations and labeling. Certifications factored into it a little bit, too, like what does it mean if one product is certified organic by the USDA compared to NSF? Most lubes that use “organic” in their name or on their label are not 100% organic, most are closer to 85%, which isn’t hard to do if most of your lube is water. The FDA regulations and classifications for lubricants as medical devices are fascinating too, basically it just means that they’re either compatible with condoms, safe for use in a hospital, and are non-toxic. The testing done by the FDA involves rabbits’ eyes and vulvas but no evaluation of effects on human genitals, or realistic use during sexual activities. That is as far as I can tell, reading FDA and USDA regulations is way harder than scientific research. It is no beach-read.

European countries tend to have a lot more regulation so I found some interesting stuff on that, but that got cut, too.

I also originally wanted to put in a lot more about the types of ingredients most commonly found in water-based lube, like surfactants or humectants, preservatives, etc. Most people don’t really care about that though, they want something simple to act as a rule or rules they can follow. I really struggle in finding the balance of how much information and what kind of information people will find most important, retainable, and even interesting.

And I did cut about half of the information on bodies and potential reactions of the body, some of it we deemed “common sense” and some of it was just not as important as bigger concerns. Prioritizing information when it comes to health is hard!

I think for me one thing has struck me, personally, really hard, and that’s a general trend for dismissing pleasure, or even just a person’s own opinion of the condition of their body and/or sexual function, if what a person reports goes against the “science” that people accept as true or the results they hope to publish.

S!: It seems like a lot of the citations you have in the guide are for studies pertaining mostly to HIV; is the study of HIV the main driving force for studies of lubricants? Is there anyone doing lubricant studies for other reasons?

SM: I would say yes, probably? I think that it would be difficult to fund a study on lubricants without including STI risk, or other health concerns. The studies on HIV also were some of the only ones I found using commercially available lubricants on actual genitals, as opposed to in vitro studies, and that (sometimes) took into account people’s sexual behaviors. People are definitely doing research on lubes for other reasons though, mostly around chronic health issues like vaginal dryness due to menopause or in conjunction with microbicide trials or estrogen delivery gels. There are even a couple of studies on lube and pleasure! Novel.

When I’ve researched ingredients individually I get a lot more variety in types of studies, but most of those are not about that ingredient use in a lubricant or on a mucous membrane, so although there are really interesting things to learn there, a lot of that information didn’t make the final cut for the pamphlet.

S!: What were the most striking things you found during your research?

SM: I think for me one thing has struck me, personally, really hard, and that’s a general trend for dismissing pleasure, or even just a person’s own opinion of the condition of their body and/or sexual function, if what a person reports goes against the “science” that people accept as true or the results they hope to publish. It’s disheartening. There were days when this project took an emotional toll. Especially when it comes to what is “healthy” or “normal” for vaginal health. Many studies would take pH or bacterial cultures for baseline values at the beginning of a trial and often 20% or more of the vagina owners participating would get diagnosed with BV or something that they didn’t have symptoms of. “Healthy” vaginal pH is always stated between 3.5-5, that would actually be a bigger range than most studies state, but that would pretty much exclude any post-menopausal vaginas. That never got mentioned or considered in the research I’ve found. It’s a continual source of frustration to me.

I’ve also found just bonkers stuff in lube, like honey or maltodextrin, these things have no business in vaginas. Or polyquaternium-15 which actually increases the viral activity of HIV and HSV-2. it makes me cringe. Also. the lubes that contain that stuff are FDA approved Medical Devices. So what does that say?

There are a TON of ingredients in water-based lubricants that probably 1-20% of people are sensitive or potentially allergic to. So, what is enough to make it not worth selling to the majority of folks who would be fine using a product, when that might give the next person hives?

S!: Is the Smitten Kitten making any changes in what lubricants you stock in response to your findings?

We are. Jennifer has been really passionate about this, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering everything she’s done around teaching folks about toxic toys and maintaining a curated inventory of safe sex toys. Lubricants are a little more nuanced, though, which has made it more of a challenge. There are a TON of ingredients in water-based lubricants that probably 1-20% of people are sensitive or potentially allergic to. So, what is enough to make it not worth selling to the majority of folks who would be fine using a product, when that might give the next person hives?

Also, frequency of use is really important when it comes to what kind of risks are associated with certain lubes, if a person uses lube once a week max, then if they like the lube they use, and use barrier protection, they’ll probably be fine with almost any lube that doesn’t contain something they’re directly allergic to.

The most important quality in lubricant safety might be osmolality, which really only applies to water-based lubes, but that’s something that isn’t printed on the bottle. Some studies have published osmolality values for a variety of lubes, but there are still a lot of lubes we carry that haven’t been a part of these larger studies. We were already very selective about the lubes we carry but are continually becoming more critical, while tempering that with the real experiences of using these products: talking with customers and getting lots of feedback on the lubes we carry.

S!: Do you know if the Smitten Kitten- or someone else- is going to be looking into getting osmolality values for lubes we have the numbers on? How would someone go about that, approach a lab like with getting materials testing for sex toys?

SM: I have plans to do this unless someone else gets to it first. I know that it is a fairly simple and inexpensive process, so I feel like if I find the right person or program we can get it done. My scientist brother actually tried to see if his lab had enough extra equipment that he could send me some to do the testing myself, but that didn’t work out for a variety of reasons…But, yeah, basically my plan is to contact labs at colleges that have staff I already know are sex-positive and see what we can get into. I also just got a bunch of pH strips so I plan on doing that testing myself which is fun!

S!: What sort of research in lubricants did you find lacking and would like to see more of?

SM: More testing of actual lubricant formulations on actual genitals. Even if not actual human genitals, there are other fairly accurate options, but there needs to be more support and research on these processes before they gain widespread credibility. I would also love to see more research that includes lubricant use aside from fertility or STI prevention, that focus on how most people actually use lube and ask participants for their feedback. It’s really frustrating to read a study where the majority of participants experienced burning or itching while using the trial product, but continue to use it because they think (and have been lead to believe by the researchers) it will help them, and then in the conclusion of the study have the authors state that the product has “high acceptability” or “no negative reactions of significance”. Using lube shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable, even a little bit!

…K-Y Yours & Mine is an FDA approved “medical device,” and I would NEVER tell anyone to put that stuff in their body. So this certification process and the testing the FDA requires does not, by any means, speak to the safety of a product.

S!: Is it possible for you to talk about what’s going on with the FDA and lubricants right now? I’ve heard some mentions of it, but don’t really know what’s going on or why it’s going on.

SM: To be honest I am not 100% sure what’s going on either. I know that some lube manufacturers in the U.S. have been notified that they need to get FDA approval as either a class I or II medical device if they wish to make “medical claims” for example “relieves vaginal dryness” and to use certain language on their packaging. I am totally unsure of how this is enforced or will be enforced. FDA certification for this requires products undergo testing on animals, so there are a lot of lubricant companies that are upset about this, especially smaller ones. This is also not a free process, getting FDA certification can be really expensive and can take years. I know that one of our favorite lubes comes from the UK and they applied for FDA certification over two years ago, even though they find animal testing abhorrent, and they still don’t have their approval. The FDA has seized their products at customs so we can’t get that brand at all until the FDA reaches a decision. Also, K-Y Yours & Mine is an FDA approved “medical device,” and I would NEVER tell anyone to put that stuff in their body. So this certification process and the testing the FDA requires does not, by any means, speak to the safety of a product.

So far I haven’t seen any company acknowledge that their products are irritating, harmful, or increase susceptibility to STIs and other infections, even though this has proven to be true.

S!: Do you find many lubricant companies taking responsibility for potentially irritating and harmful ingredients in their products? Are any of the big companies like KY, Astroglyde, Jo, or others addressing this, or is it just smaller “specialty” companies?

SM: So far I haven’t seen any company acknowledge that their products are irritating, harmful, or increase susceptibility to STIs and other infections, even though this has proven to be true. A lot of the bigger companies are now making glycerine and paraben free formulas, or “organic” options, even though many of these are not as organic as they’d lead you to believe. It’s an improvement in most cases, but these safer options are often still not as widely available, or just as widely known, as older, more potentially harmful formulas like your classic K-Y Jelly.

Mostly the larger companies just have made more options, and the smaller companies use the evidence of harmful ingredients in the bigger name lubricants as a marketing tool for their own brand. Not that that is a bad thing, or untrue, but there is generally a lot of misleading information in any kind of marketing. Even if something can be true doesn’t mean it’s always true, and there’s generally not a lot of grey area when it comes to marketing and advertising.

S!: What advice would you give the average person interested in buying a lubricant but not knowing where to start?

SM: Oh this question sounds so simple but it’s really hard to answer. Everyone is different so find one that works for you. It’s something I love helping people with one on one in the store because I can ask them questions and listen to their experiences and requests to really get the best product for them individually, but really really everybody is different. Generally, I can confidently say that water-base lube has the most potential for irritation; typically if irritation occurs it should subside and heal within 48 hours unless it’s an allergic reaction. I’d urge people to  avoid products that have glycerine or propylene glycol as one of the first three ingredients, or just avoid them altogether. With water-based lubes a shorter ingredients list is generally an indicator of a more body friendly product. Silicone lubes are great for folks with a lot of sensitivities. Oil based lubes, if they’re plant oil based, can be really great, also. I think especially sex educators needs to know that silicone based lubes might be a better alternative to water-based lubes when you’re talking safety and STI prevention.

Really, I would ask someone who didn’t know where to start with lube to  tell me what they want from their lube, what they plan to do with it or how they want to use it, and then ask if they have allergies or skin sensitivities they know about, and go from there.