Condoms: Barriers to Bad News
- What do condoms have in common with toothpaste & toilet paper?
- Life-Saving Barrier
- Check for Holes!
- Correct & Consistent Usage
- Handle with Care
What do condoms have in common with toothpaste & toilet paper?
Not enough, according to Adam Glickman, owner of the Condomania stores in New York and Los Angeles. Glickman, who has sold condoms by the millions to individuals and organizations such as the Peace Corps and Planned Parenthood, says condoms should be viewed as ordinary, like toothpaste and toilet paper.
"People have gotten past asking, 'Isn't brushing my teeth every morning a hassle?' Given the world we live in, wearing condoms is something you just have to do, like brushing your teeth. The stakes are too high."
Luis Lopez knows first-hand what's at stake. About 10 years ago, Lopez, now 31 and a health educator with the People With AIDS Coalition of New York, became infected with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, during a casual sexual encounter.
"I thought people with AIDS had purple spots or looked really skinny," Lopez says. "I thought by being discriminating about who I slept with, I could keep myself safe. We know now that makes no sense."
We know now that abstaining from sex is the only foolproof protection from the sexual passage of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
We know, too, that for those who choose to have sex with someone who has any chance of being infected, using a latex condom during every sexual encounter can significantly reduce the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, while protecting against pregnancy.
For those who can't or won't use latex condoms, the Food and Drug Administration has cleared two alternative barrier methods of birth control; a male condom made of polyurethane, and a condom that is worn by the woman. Both help protect against pregnancy and may provide some level of protection from STIs.
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A male condom, sometimes called a "rubber" or "prophylactic," is a sheath that fits snugly over a man's erect penis, with a closed end to catch the sperm and stop them from entering the woman's vagina. No prescription is needed to buy a condom.
Data shows that if a condom is used correctly with every act of sexual intercourse for one year, about three out of every 100 women are expected to get pregnant.
Besides sperm, latex condoms act as a barrier to a wide variety of viruses, bacteria, and other infectious particles. By preventing contact with many sores and minimizing the exchange of infectious fluids, condoms can help prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted infections – including HIV, gonorrhea, Chlamydia, syphilis, herpes infection, and genital ulcers.
Even though sperm are enormous compared to HIV, both are much too small to see. But even HIV, which is among the tiniest of STD organisms, cannot pass through a latex condom.
Millions of Americans are infected with these diseases each year, and hundreds of thousands of them become seriously ill or die as a result. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States, someone is infected with HIV every 13 minutes. CDC estimates that 65 percent of these AIDS cases can be attributed to sexual contact.
The best protection from such diseases is to not have sex or to have a mutually monogamous relationship with someone who is known to be uninfected. However, for those who are sexually active, studies have shown that proper and consistent use of latex condoms is the best defense.
A 1994 European study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at HIV transmission rates of heterosexual couples with one HIV-infected partner. The study compared the transmission rates for couples who used condoms consistently to those who didn't.
Of the 123 couples who consistently used condoms, none of the HIV-free partners became infected during the study, whereas 12 of the 122 partners who didn't consistently use condoms became infected.
"The scientific evidence is compelling," says Herbert Peterson, M.D., chief of CDC's women's health and fertility branch. "We're not guessing about this."
The spermicide nonoxynol-9, used in some condoms, has been shown to be effective as a contraceptive, and may reduce the risk of transmitting certain STIs. However, the spermicide has not been proven to prevent sexual transmission of HIV.
Similarly, lambskin (or natural membrane) condoms, while effective for contraception, should not be used for disease protection because the naturally occurring pores in lambskin are large enough to allow some viruses to pass through.
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Check for Holes!
Since 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulated condoms to ensure their safety and effectiveness. Currently, manufacturers of American-made and imported condoms electronically test each condom for holes and other defects.
Also, before distributing the condoms to retailers, manufacturers perform additional testing on random condoms from each batch, usually involving a "water leak" test to find holes and an "air burst" test to check condom strength.
The FDA oversees the testing procedures by periodically inspecting the manufacturing facilities, and the agency tests some condoms in its own laboratories to confirm their quality.
Condoms are sold in various colors, shapes, or packaging to suit different personal preferences. But, whether they glow in the dark or taste like strawberries, products that sufficiently resemble a condom must comply with the FDA's requirements, even if they are labeled as "novelties."
The only condom-like products that need not comply are those that can't be used like condoms. For example, some novelty products have the closed end removed or are sealed so they can't be unrolled.
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Correct & Consistent Usage
Although condoms are generally expected to break less than 2 percent of the time – with more than half of the breakages occurring before ejaculation – real-life pregnancy rates over a year of condom use may be as high as 15 percent.
Inconsistent or incorrect use of condoms explains the discrepancy, according to Lillian Yin, director of the division in FDA that regulates condoms and other reproductive devices. One national survey of heterosexual adults with multiple sex partners found that only 17 percent used a condom every time they had sex.
"People say they use condoms," Yin says, "but do they use them each and every time and use them correctly? That's another ballgame. We hear it all the time – 'We tried to use it, but ....'"
But what? Partner trust was the most-cited reason for not wearing condoms in a recent study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. But be careful, CDC cautions, because even a trustworthy partner could unknowingly have a sexually transmitted infection.
Many participants in the NIH study said they didn't always wear a condom because sex feels better without them. Lopez responds, "If you don't use them, you run the risk of something that feels much worse."
Sometimes a couple can't use a latex condom because one partner is allergic to latex. For these people, FDA has approved condoms made from polyurethane.
If a man objects to wearing a condom for some other reason, Planned Parenthood suggests possible replies. For example, to the partner who says, "I guess you don't really love me," the organization suggests responding, "I do, but I'm not risking my future to prove it."
If the man still chooses not to wear a condom, the Reality female condom cleared by FDA in 1993 offers an alternative.
Using condoms consistently is a start, but using them correctly is another key to protecting oneself. User error, not poor condom quality, leads to most breakages. But a few simple rules can minimize breaks and leaks.
Even when used correctly, condoms aren't perfect, CDC acknowledges, comparing them to other important safety-enhancing behaviors like wearing seat-belts and bicycle helmets. Imperfect as they are, condoms can significantly reduce the rates of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
"Correct and consistent condom use," says CDC's Peterson, "could break the back of the AIDS epidemic."
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Handle with Care
To get the maximum protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, remember the following things when using condoms:
- Store condoms in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. Don't make the common mistake of storing them in a glove compartment, wallet, or purse.
- Don't use a condom if the package is damaged or the rubber material is sticky, brittle, discolored, or otherwise deteriorated. Don't use a condom after the expiration date or more than five years after the manufacturing date.
- Never reuse a condom. Use a new condom with each sexual act that involves contact with the penis.
- Handle a condom carefully to avoid damaging it with fingernails, teeth, or other sharp objects.
- Put on the condom after the penis is erect and before intimate contact. Place the condom on the head of the penis and unroll it all the way to the base. Leave an empty space at the end of the condom to collect semen. Remove any air remaining in the tip by gently pressing the air out toward the base of the penis.
- Ensure adequate lubrication during intercourse. When needed with latex condoms, use only water-based lubricants such as K-Y jelly or glycerin. Don't use oil-based lubricants such as baby oil, petroleum jelly, massage oil, body lotion, or cooking oil because they can weaken the latex. Oil-based lubricants may be used with polyurethane, however, without damaging the material.
- After ejaculation, hold onto the rim of the condom and carefully withdraw the penis while it is still erect.
- For more help, see our article on how to properly use a condom.
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staff writer for the FDA.
Reviewed By: Nancy Brown, Ph.D.
Last Reviewed: October 2013
Below are links PAMF accessed when researching this topic. PAMF does not sponsor or endorse any of these sites, nor does PAMF guarantee the accuracy of the information contained on them.
Protecting Against Unintended Pregnancy: A Guide to Contraceptive Choices, U.S. Food and Drug