When’s the last time you sang the praises of lube? When you hear about what our ancestors used to use before commercial lube was invented, you’ll likely feel a lot more grateful.
Modern commercial lube wasn’t invented until the early 20th century, and even then, it was a far cry from the plethora of products we have available now. There are a ton of options available today that tick All The Boxes—they provide long-lasting lubrication, contain lab-tested ingredients, and are friendly to both vaginas and penises. Back in the day? Not so much.
But the natural world is full of slippery substances derived from seeds, leaves, fruits, roots, and even animals. Our ancestors had no problem creating lubes from the resources around them, some of which you’d never imagine.
Olive Oil (350 BCE)
The ancient Greeks were realllllly into sex, and they were very open to anal sex and male homosexuality. They also used olive oil for pretty much everything. The earliest mention of olive oil as a lubricant is from 350 BCE. That’s around the same time that the dildo became popular; ancient Greek dildos were made of padded leather and, yes, anointed with olive oil.
Sex scholars believe olive oil was likely the go-to lubricant for both the ancient Greeks and Romans. It also doubled as a contraceptive, as mentioned by Aristotle in one text, and while olive oil definitely won’t actually prevent pregnancy, it does make for perfectly effective and safe lube even today.
“Sexual lubricants have been around for centuries,” explained Dr. Sherry A. Ross, Women’s Health expert and author of she-ology. The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period.
“Long ago, olive oil was readily available, effective and a natural lubricant,” Ross told Men’s Health. “In the modern age, olive oil is still used as a viable and popular sexual lubricant.”
It is not, however, safe for use with latex-based condoms or dental dams, nor are any other oils, as they cause the latex to break down.
Seaweed (for Thousands of Years)
People in Japan, Korea, and China have used a substance derived from seaweed as lube for “millennia,” per botanist Ryan Drum. They boiled red seaweeds to produce a thick, sticky liquid called carrageenan. Carrageenan is water-soluble, gelatinous, and slippery—or in other words, a really great lube.
Carrageenan is used in many modern lubes and lubricated condoms, like Sliquid Naturals Sea. Studies show that it may help reduce the transmission of HPV.
Yams (1603 CE)
Fun fact: The Japanese were just as tolerant of anal sex and male homosexuality as the ancient Greeks. During the Edo period (1603-1868), they lubed up with a substance called “tororo-jiru,” a slick substance made by grating Chinese yams. Nowadays, tororo-jiru is now known as a popular Japanese soup.
Yam lube is not a thing anymore, although there is an episode of Grace and Frankie in which Frankie makes a homemade lube out of yams. It’s hard to even begin to imagine a yam lube, but luckily Eric M. Garrison, sexologist and sex counselor, has actually made a lube with yams in real life! In this case, the yams were combined with agar (a seaweed-derived ingredient).
“The consistency is very similar to applesauce, the taste is sweet and earthy,” Garrison told Men’s Health. “But it has a beige creamy color. When I taste jicama, it reminds me of that. It is not anything that most Westerners would recognize as lubricant.”
Clove Oil (1603 CE)
Also in Japan in the Edo period, men would routinely use clove oil as a lubricant for anal sex as well as for dildos. Clove oil is a rather strong essential oil, so it might seem counter-intuitive to use it for sex, because ouch! But clove oil remains in use as an ingredient in modern lubes, sprays, and creams designed specifically for anal sex. It has pain-killing and muscle-relaxing properties that can be handy for that particular act, if used with caution. One modern lube uses clove oil to “relax the area for safe and comfortable penetration.”
Spit (Since Forever)
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Duh, spit! It’s free, and it’s always there, just waiting to be used. Spit has likely been used by all of our ancestors for as long as humans have been having sex. There are two specific references to it in a collection of Chinese jokes from the 18th century, so obviously, it was a thing there. In one joke, two monks discuss having sex “vegetarian style,” or without any spit. (I’m guessing that was funnier in China in the 1700s.)
Spit is not an ideal lube, mind you. Can you even call spit a “lube”? It’s more like a last resort. It doesn’t provide much lubrication, and it’s not very hygienic.
Early Modern Lube (Early 1900s)
In more recent history, people used KY Jelly as lube—before it was meant to be used for that purpose. KY Jelly was originally marketed as a surgical aid in the early 1900s. The glycerin-based substance soon became popular for sex, and eventually, the company accepted its fate as the most popular lube of all time. In more recent years, KY Jelly (and its main competitor Astroglide) has fallen somewhat out of favor, thanks to critiques over its potential to reduce fertility.
Similarly, Vaseline patented the first petroleum jelly in 1872, and though it’s really never been intended for sex, it’s long been used for it.
In 2019, a quick Internet search will yield you plenty of high-quality lubes with modern ingredients. (Garrison doesn’t recommend using Vaseline, spit, or glycerin-based lubes.) But if you want to get down like your ancestors, plant oils remain a reliable option. Coconut oil is Garrison’s top pick, but olive oil is a good choice, too.
“Olive oil can be added to the list of choices for an effective lubricant,” Sherry concurred. “It’s natural and lasts longer than water based lubricants.”
Alas, not everyone can just haul their olive oil from the kitchen to the bedroom with good results.
“Some women and men notice more skin irritation including rashes and hives when using olive oil,” Sherry said. “If you are prone to skin sensitivities or yeast infections, olive oil may not be your best option. Extra virgin coconut oil is another safe and natural option that many couples are experimenting with during sexual activity.”
And if you do go with olive oil, remember not to rely on latex-based condoms.
For help picking the best lube for you, check out our handy guide.
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