Choosing the best condom for disease prevention
Used correctly, latex condoms can prevent pregnancy and help reduce the risk of passing on or contracting a sexually transmitted disease, including HIV.
The bulk of condoms are manufactured from latex (the FDA recommends latex condoms highest on the safer-sex front), but that’s not so good if you’re one of the nearly 6 percent of the population that’s allergic to latex. Most folks with latex allergies experience contact dermatitis on the vulva or penis, which is irritating, but not life threatening; more dangerous reactions, such as asthma or anaphylaxis, are rare. An allergy test can be performed if you think you’re sensitive to latex.
The good news is that even if you have a latex allergy, you can still find condoms for safer sex, including ones made of polyurethane and polyisoprene.
Polyurethane condoms, introduced in 1994, are more expensive than latex, but they are also thinner and better able to conduct heat. Oil-based lubricants destroy latex, but they are fine to use with polyurethane condoms. (The female condom is made of polyurethane.) There are some drawbacks. A 2003 study found polyurethane condoms were more likely to break during sexual intercourse than their latex counterparts. A Guttmacher Institute study found similar results, reporting that polyurethane condoms lost their shape or bunched up more than latex condoms. Some users say polyurethane condoms make squeaking noises during intercourse.
Polyisoprene is a heavily refined, synthetic form of latex that has had the allergenic latex proteins removed. Condoms made from polyisoprene, which received FDA approval in 2008, are softer, more comfortable and reportedly easier to use than polyurethane ones and are suitable for most people with latex allergies, though it’s possible someone highly sensitive to latex could experience delayed allergic contact dermatitis. At the moment, there are fewer brands of polyisoprene condoms on the market, but most drugstores carry them and they can be purchased online. Cheaper than polyurethane condoms (but more expensive than latex ones), polyisoprene condoms can’t be used with oil-based lubricants. Choose silicone or a water-based lubricant. If you’re not sure which lubricant is safe, talk to your pharmacist.
So what about lambskin condoms? Some people use them because they think they are more natural, but when it comes to protecting against STDs, lambskin condoms are a non-starter. Made from sheep intestines, they are too porous to contain viruses such as herpes, hepatitis or HPV (though they do keep sperm from reaching an egg, so they are suitable for pregnancy protection). And novelty condoms aren’t designed to protect against pregnancy or disease; they are for sexual stimulation.
No matter what kind of condom you choose, always read the label. If the package doesn’t mention disease prevention, it probably don’t provide the kind of protection you’re seeking.