You may choose to use condoms because this contraceptive method is one of the only options that can protect you from pregnancy as well as from many sexually transmitted infections -- several of which can be harmful. Yet have you ever stopped to think about what your condoms are made of and how these condom materials may be affecting your health? Knowing what is in your condoms can help you to determine if particular brands are good condoms or bad condoms for you to use.
Most condom manufacturers are fairly forthcoming when it comes to informing you if your condoms are made of latex, polyurethane, lambskin or non-latex natural rubber -- given that this is the “main ingredient” of the condom. Most brands will also readily tell you whether or not the condom contains spermicide. After that, however, information about condom materials may be harder to determine. Condom companies may mention on their packages or websites that chemicals have been added during the manufacturing process, but they typically do not come right out and identify exactly what their condoms are made of.
To investigate this, I journeyed into my local drugstore’s family planning aisle, and examined many of the condom boxes. After inspecting the condom packages as well as the websites for some major condom companies, I have found that most do not specify the specific materials/chemicals, such as talc or casein, that may be found in their condoms. Additionally, condom packages will usually say (if applicable) if the condom is lubricated, but most do not inform you if the condom lubricant contains parabens, glycerin, and/or benzocaine. Yet it seems that condom manufacturers are more likely to indicate whether the condom packaging was made of 100% recyclable material rather than what the actual condom is made of!
Why Is This Information Important?
- Many people have allergies to latex, parabens, and/or glycerin. Using these condoms may cause a local, allergic reaction, which may include vaginal irritation. This inflammation can put you at an increased risk for catching HIV and/or other sexually transmitted infections.
- Many condoms companies manufacture their latex condoms using casein -- a milk protein. Some condoms may also contain milk powder. If you are a vegetarian, it may be important to you to only use vegan-approved products. Though there are no international or federal regulated standards or definitions of what makes a product vegan, the following condom manufacturers have confirmed to the Vegan Society that their condoms are free from animal ingredients -- some, but not all, of the following condoms are also registered with the Vegan Society, the American Vegan Association, and/or Vegan Action: Glyde Condoms, Sir Richard’s Condoms, RFSU Condoms (Birds 'N Bees, The Profil, Mamba, Thin and Grande), Condomi Condoms, Fusion Condoms, Durex Avanti Ultima Condoms, and Pasante Condoms. On their website, Kimono condoms indicate that they are “vegan friendly” but do not specifically disclose whether these condoms are casein-free or free of milk powder. There is also no indication on any of their condom packages that Kimono condoms are vegan-approved.
- Condoms that include the spermicide nonoxynol-9 can be problematic for some users. Basically, nonoxynol-9 is a type of detergent. It kills sperm and STD-causing organisms/pathogens by agitating the outer barrier membranes of sperm and other cells. Though this makes nonoxynol-9 quite effective, frequent or high use of this spermicide can cause inflammation of the cervix and vagina, and/or damage (and potentially destroy) the skin cells in the vagina. These types of vaginal irritations may leave you more susceptible to urinary tract infections as well as STDs. You may more easily spread STDs to your partner as well.
- Parabens are inactive ingredients that are used as preservatives in personal lubricants because they help to deter microbial/bacterial growth. They seem to function in a manner similar to estrogen and can bond to estrogen receptors. Parabens have been found in the tissue of cancerous breast tumors, so some research questions whether parabens may be linked to cancer. Because of their estrogenic effects, parabens are thought to be endocrine disruptors. They have been found to interfere with normal, hormonally-regulated processes, can adversely affect development and/or reproductive function (i.e., can lead to reduced sperm counts), and are capable of producing a variety of toxic and physiological effects (potentially increasing the rates of testicular, breast, and ovarian cancers).
- Glycerin is a sweet-tasting preservative that is often added to personal lubricants and is classified as a sugar alcohol. Some doctors believe that using glycerin-containing lubricants can increase your chances of having a yeast infection -- especially if you are already prone to these types of infections. Glycerin appears to be processed in the body the same way that sugar is. When applied directly into the vagina during intercourse with a lubricated condom, it is thought that the yeast found in the vagina feeds off of the glycerin. This can cause a disruption in the pH and an overgrowth of yeast... leading to a yeast infection.
What Condom Packages and/or their Websites “Tend” to Mention:
- A few of the condom brands have a condom option that includes the spermicide nonoxynol-9. Some manufacturers (such as Trojan Armor Series) also contained associated warnings about not using these condoms for anal sex or for more than once-a-day vaginal sex, whereas other brands (such as LifeStyles UltraLubricated with Spermicide) only indicated that a spermicide is added for extra protection. In October 2002, Kimono condoms were the first brand of condoms to remove nonoxynol-9 from its condoms.
- Most condom manufacturers indicated whether the condoms were lubricated -- sometimes a distinction was made as to whether the lubricant was water-based, silicone-based, gel-based and/or pH balanced. None of the websites or packages specifically indicated if the condom lubricant contained parabens or glycerin -- usually just stating that a premium lubricant was used. The Sir Richard's Condom Company disclosed that their condoms are paraben and glycerin-free.
- Three condom brands -- Trojan Extended Pleasure, Durex Performax and Durex Performa -- all claimed to contain a “special” lubricant to extend excitement by controlling a man’s climax. Under the product details for Durex Performa, the website identified this lubricant as benzocaine. The lubricant is not identified for the other two condom brands. Yet, under the FAQ section of Trojan’s website, the company explains that its Extended Pleasure condoms have benzocaine applied inside, and that this chemical is a mild topical anesthetic used in many over-the-counter medications and works by slightly decreasing sensitivity.
- Beyond Seven Condoms and Okamoto Condoms only mention that they are made of the latex material Sheerlon. There is also one condom variety of Beyond Seven that contains natural aloe extract.
- The website for The One Condoms only mentions that its condoms are made of premium ingredients, and the Sensis Condom boxes and website do not mention specific condom materials -- only that its QuikStrips are made from disposable polyethylene.
Here are some quotes from various condom manufacturers’ websites regarding the making of their condoms. Note that none provide any specifics about the chemicals their condoms are made of:
- Trojan Condoms: “We pump raw latex into compounding kettles, add other materials and turn up the heat. ...Condoms are then dried, and coated with a non-stick agent.”
- Caution Wear Condoms: “Ingredients added to the latex must be able to attach to the rubber particles during compounding. ...Next, the condoms are put in a tumbling machine, where they are coated with talc or another similar powder to prevent the rubber from sticking to itself.”
- Kimono Condoms: “Compounding is a process in which our special formulations are added to the latex to strengthen, preserve, and make Kimono condoms ultra thin and strong. ...Several unique and secret compounds are used to make Kimono condoms.”
- Durex Condoms: “Chemicals are added to it, and it’s heated. During this process, the chemicals react with the rubber in the latex to make it stronger, more reliable and give it low allergenic potential. ...condoms are powdered using pharmacologically safe materials. ...This is when any lube and flavouring that’s going to be used is injected into the foil at the same time.”
The bottom line? You have the right to know what your condoms are made of. You may be allergic to certain materials used in condoms. Various ingredients may also pose health concerns for some people. If you have a condom brand that you love or want to try, you can always contact the manufacturer to find out what their condoms are made of (if it is not listed on the package). Being an educated consumer is part of sexual health responsibility. The more information you have, the more informed your contraceptive choices will be.
Blair, R., Fang, H., Branham, W., Hass,B., Dial, S., Moland, C., Tong, W., Shi, L., Perkins, R., & Sheehan, D. "The estrogen receptor relative binding affinities of 188 natural and xenochemicals: Structural diversity of ligands." Toxicological Sciences, 2000, 54(1): 138-153. Accessed 4/11/12.
Harvey, P.W. "Discussion of concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors." Journal of Applied Toxicology, 2004, 24:307-310. Accessed via private subscription.
Hillier, S. et al. "In Vitro and in vivo: The story of nonoxynol-9." JAIDS, 2005, 39(1):1-8. Accessed via private subscription.
National Toxicology Program. "Parabens: Selected Toxicity Information from Hazardous Substance Database," National Library of Medicine. Accessed 4/11/12.