Ask the Doctors: Natural=Safe?

There has been a lot of talk over the years about things like phthalates, parabens, propylene glycol, nonoxynol-9 and other things that go into the manufacture of lubes and sex toys that may not be so good for the body. One response to this has been to gravitate towards more organic, more natural products, which is not a bad thing for a number of reasons, but I am wondering, are there be potential dangers surrounding some of these? Do you think people may develop a false sense of security by the fact that these products are made from “natural ingredients”?

I just saw a lube that includes bee products like propolis and beeswax, and I know a person with allergies to things like that. This may not create problems with people who have sensitivities to bee stings, necessarily, but bee pollen and propolis can be problems themselves, seeing that many people who are allergic to bee stings are allergic not only to the venom, but to the pollen that a bee sting can inject.

This brings questions to mind, such as:

Can some natural ingredients used in various products cause more likely, less likely or equally likely to cause issues as “non-natural” ingredients we’re warned against? Should manufacturers create specific warning about known allergens being in the product?
–Cautiously Natural

Great question!

Beeswax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly — and honey, too — can all be allergens for some people. Just as it’s possible to be allergic to bee stings themselves, other bee-related products can also cause allergic reactions in those who are sensitive to them. As you point out, it’s possible that pollen, as well as venom, can be injected into a person via a bee sting; many types of pollen are potential allergens, and in some people, the response is severe. In researching your question I found at least one assertion that will make me eye my morning toast like it’s a microscopic horror movie set: “Both proteins derived from secretions of and salivary glands of honeybee heads and pollen proteins contained in the honey cause allergic reactions to honey.

Eeek! Now, I hasten to say that those pharyngeal parts are apparently just fine for most people, and/or are filtered out of most honey — honey is certainly not on the top of the known list of allergens, though it’s a perfect example of a “natural” food that some people do have trouble eating. But it’s hardly the only one, and even someone who eats raw, vegan, and organic might find themselves with hives, shortness of breath, swelling, digestive problems, or any of the many side effects contended with by people with allergies or sensitivities. While we’re still on the subject of bees, the Burt’s Bees company, for example, says that their products are “not recommended for use for people with known allergies to bee stings or bee byproducts.” Apitherapy News, devoted to the medicinal use of bee products, notes that “it is well known that atopic and asthmatic individuals may be at an increased risk of allergic reactions after using these products. The public and healthcare practitioners should be aware of the risk of allergic reactions to products derived from bees and a warning should be added to the packaging of these products.” (Italics theirs.)

I certainly don’t mean to pick on our friends the bees — they are wonderful animals. In general, if someone has a food allergy or sensitivity, or a contact dermatitis-type of reaction to a plant- or animal-based product of any kind, it would be wise for them to avoid using that product on mucosal tissue (vagina, anus, mouth), and possibly even on their skin. Most products aren’t tested on erogenous areas of the body as a matter of course, and the same labs that test kiwis and strawberries for the properties that make them allergic to some susceptible people probably never look into kiwi- or strawberry-flavored “lickable love lotions.” Any lube or comparable product containing natural ingredients, even organic ones, might — for some users — cause problems; food-grade and chemical ingredients alike could be the culprit if a person experiences irritation.

This leads me to remind users of every lube, massage product, or other body care or stimulation product to be aware about things like itching, redness, swelling and discomfort. None of those are normal reactions to lube use — they are signs of sensitivity. Best-case scenario, they are annoying and make an erotic encounter with yourself or a partner less pleasurable. (Well, BEST-case scenario, you’re kinky and like the way it feels. But that’s a discussion for another day.) Worst-case scenario, they increase the likelihood you might catch a sexually transmitted condition, or they result in serious health problems. This is not meant to frighten anyone away from using these products (unless a specific product clearly contains “tincture of whatever-you-already-know-you’re-allergic-to” — in which case, skip that brand and choose another). It IS a call to get people to read labels and figure out which ingredients, if any, are not good for their own individual bodies. Awareness of such sensitivities allows us to protect ourselves inside and out.


We’re dedicated to getting you the information you need about sex, pleasure and your health. If you have any questions, please email our staff experts, Dr. Carol Queen and Dr. Charlie Glickman, at education@goodvibes.com! For product-related questions, please email or call our customer service staff at customerservice@goodvibes.com.

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Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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