With more than 18 billion condoms used each year, it’s time you knew what’s in them.
Quick history lesson
Please grant my degree in Anthropology a moment to shine…
Homo Sapiens, the only extant hominids, are dated as far back as 150,000 years ago. Condoms have been around nearly 13,000 years. The most common materials for condoms (pre 19th century) were linen or animal intestines. During the Bronze Age (c. 3100–300 B.C.E. in Asia Minor) wealthy men wore gilded condoms made of tortoise shells, gold, silver, and silk. In 1000 C.E., Ancient Egyptians protected themselves from diseases like bilharzia by using linen sheaths. With the rise of syphilis in Europe in the 16th-century, the first chemical-soaked condom emerged. (Shout out to Gabriele Falloppio for creating the first condom known to prevent STDs!) It was a linen sheath, tied with a ribbon, and used to combat the spread of disease rather than to prevent pregnancy.
Ironic that while the first known use of chemicals in condoms was to prevent disease, modern condoms now contain chemicals that are known to cause disease.
What’s a modern condom made of?
Ask just about anyone what a condom is made of and the first thing they’ll probably say is “latex” or “rubber”. Okay, great … but what is in the latex and rubber? Charles Goodyear (yep, the tire man) vulcanized rubber in 1839 and the first rubber condoms were on the market by 1855. Creating these rubber condoms relied on the use of gasoline and benzene to suspend the rubber and bind it with sulfur.
Latex condoms came a little later, in 1920. Their popularity is attributed to two main factors: creating them didn’t involve the use of gasoline and benzene which removed the fire hazard for factory workers and the stretch made them *essentially* one size fits all.
As condoms have developed and gained in popularity there are four major components of them that can harm a woman’s health. I’d like to acknowledge that, yes, the exposure to these chemicals via condoms is minimal. But it’s exposure nonetheless, in an incredibly absorbant, sensitive, intimate place and that deserves notice and prevention. It should also be noted that many scientists believe that while small levels of chemicals are able to be processed by the body, it’s the cumulative exposure from multiple points that causes the greatest risk, which is why they should be regulated at all levels.
The ingredients to avoid and why –
- Nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are a byproduct of creating synthetic latex. They have been linked to tumor growth (specifically both stomach and colon cancer). The World Health Organization (WHO) has been encouraging condom companies to remove Nitrosamines since 2010 as they serve no purpose in the condom’s function and are known carcinogens. They are used to accelerate the latex forming process and save companies money.
- Nonoxynol-9. Nonoxynol-9 or N-9 is a chemical included in condoms as a spermicide and lubricant. While effective for killing sperm cells and STDs the issue comes with the fact that N-9 cannot distinguish between sperm cells and cells along the vagina and rectal wall. Ironically, in the long-term, the destruction of these cells (vagina and rectal) can increase the chance of contracting an STD or urinary tract infection. *Please note that N-9 is the only spermicide available in the U.S.*
- Glycerine (or Glycerol). When left in the body too long Glycerine breaks down into Glycerol (sugar). This can throw off the vagina’s pH, increasing the chances of contracting a yeast infection. Flavored condoms have a higher likelihood of containing Glycerine to sweeten them and are not meant to be used vaginally.
- Parabens. Parabens are mostly used as a chemical preservative to prevent bacterial growth. You can find them across the board in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals (again, only in the U.S. as they are banned in the EU). Parabens are believed to be an endocrine disrupter and have been linked to breast cancer and lowering sperm count in men. This is likely because they have a chemical structure similar to estrogen and can mimic the effects of estrogen in the body.
All condoms are not made equal
Research your options when it comes to condoms and feel comfortable saying “No” to any that don’t disclose their ingredients or contain the chemicals listed above. The choice should never be between sex without a condom v sex with a condom that contains ingredients you aren’t comfortable with. There are great companies, like Sustain and Maude (aff code: WITHMOLLY for 10% off), that list their ingredients so you can check if they contain nitrosamines, glycerin, N-9, etc.
- Common Argument #1: Specialty condoms are too expensive.
- Common Argument #2: It’s just more convenient to buy condoms from the pharmacy.
- I agreed with you, it definitely is. But it doesn’t have to be. Backing companies that promote safe, female-centric products is how those companies grow. And if you are truly a forgetful person and worry about forgetting to order more Maude has a subscription service that can automatically send you new condoms every 30, 60, or 90 days depending on your needs. And utilizing that service lowers the cost to $10.80. And using my code WITHMOLLY will get you an additional 10% off.
And as always
- Practice safe-sex methods. This article is not meant to scare or deter you from using condoms. Condoms are an important part of safe-sex practices and should absolutely be used.
- Be mindful of your condoms expiration date and do not use expired condoms.
- Store your condoms away from direct sunlight and avoid exposing them to extreme temperatures at this can degrade the latex.