The Best Condom Exists But We Can't Buy it Yet
Cactus Blai Baules
It's a truth universally acknowledged: Condoms are the worst.
You don't even have to feel bad for thinking so—experts get it, too. Just ask health services researcher Brandon Brown, an assistant professor in the Center for Healthy Communities Department of Social Medicine and Population Health at the University of California, Riverside. "Condoms kind of suck, and that's why people don't use them," Brown says. "They're kind of like saran wrap; they have a smell." People also complain about them, he notes, because of the erection-wilting effect that sometimes happens when they're put on.
No one's saying you should renounce rubbers entirely, to be clear—used correctly, they're 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, and they "provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size of STD pathogens," according to the CDC, effectively preventing the spread of HIV and other STDs.
We're just saying that they're uncomfortable, hard to use, and unreliable if you screw up putting one on—one 2008 study found that 31 percent of guys who regularly wrap it up experienced breakage within the last three months. So if you're one of the two-thirds of American men who don't slide one on, according to figures released last month by the CDC, or one of the 43 percent of teens who didn't use one the last time they had sex, you're likely not without your reasons.
Brown explains that curiously, condom technology has remained essentially unchanged over the last 100 years—it's actually remained mostly the same since the 1830s, when we first ditched animal intestines for latex. The last "big" change, if you can call it that, was the introduction of the reservoir tip, and that was almost 70 years ago.
Condoms haven't received a real update even in the face of climbing STD rates, and they don't fully prevent the spread of diseases like HPV, which is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. They simply weren't designed to fight STDs, according to Brown; they were intended to prevent pregnancy and nothing else. "And for that, they work," he adds, noting that condom companies have been improving them in small, incremental ways—adding texture, for example, or switching from latex to polyurethane (which helped make thinner condoms that are just as durable). "But it kind of leads to the same problem: People still really don't want to use them, because it's less fun to use them than to not."
"We've had dots and ribs and flavors, but you'd be hard pressed to find any engineer that would call that a significant change," adds Stuart Nugent, brand communications manager for the sex toy company Lelo.
Last year, Lelo made headlines when it introduced Hex, billed as the world's first re-engineered condom. The futuristic Hex was meant to address three core issues—discomfort, slippage, and breakage—with the help of a honeycomb pattern. Asked why a business better known for its vibrators is one of the only ones innovating in the sexy sheath sphere, Nugent says it comes down to one thing: complacency.
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"There are a handful of (read: three) massive, monolithic brands in the condom industry, and they've been content to rest on their laurels and not compete with each other too hard for fear of disrupting their comfortable markets," he says. "For too long, they've had a real stranglehold on sexual health, buying out innovative startups and suppressing them, or squatting on patents, that kind of thing. It's unbelievably hard for a smaller company...to elbow in to such a monopolized industry. We know, for example, that our patents had been thoroughly studied by competitors long before Hex condoms made it to the market."
There have been some other efforts of late to give rubbers a reboot. In 2013, UC Riverside's Brandon Brown was one of the researchers who applied for a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that would fund efforts to develop the next generation of condoms.
That November—and again in June of 2014—the foundation revealed a handful of recipients of the $100,000 grants. Ideas included clever condoms that tightened during sex or clung to a dick like shrink wrap, or were made with super-strong, ultra-thin graphene-based polymers that more effectively transfer heat and could lead to an altogether steamier experience.
But so far, none of those proposals—neither the nanoparticle-based ones or the one that would have used collagen found in bovine tendons—has made it to market. Cow-tendon condom creator Mark McGlothlin, president of Apex Medical Technologies, told Mic in 2015 that it's a matter of cost: "It probably is more than a million dollars just to get through FDA approval. It's a brutal process."
And that barrier is enough to keep these barriers from hitting shelves at your local CVS anytime soon. In July, a group of MIT researchers announced that they'd developed a futuristic hydrogel that could lead to vastly better condoms (and catheters) due to its unique properties. In a study published in Advanced Healthcare Materials, they explained that the gel-like laminate is flexible, soft, and slippery, and that it's impermeable to viruses, which would make it a pretty perfect condom coating.
"The cool thing about this one is that they very closely mimic human tissue—skin, muscle," PhD candidate German Parada, lead author of the study, tells Tonic. While synthetic hydrogels have been around since the '60s, Parada explains that it's only in the past two or three years that his team developed a way to attach them to other materials like metal or glass—or latex. It's tricky to do, since the substance is super watery, making the research out of MIT pretty revolutionary. "That's the reason why this isn't something that you've seen in the market," he adds. "It's not commercially available because this is very new technology."
And so, while he and his team are thinking of commercializing their product, working with on-campus entrepreneurship services to make it a reality, it's going to take years of testing—and yes, likely millions in funding—until it's actually improving your sex life.
"It's a cool technology and a cool idea, but right now it's only a scientific idea," Parada says. "There's a lot of things that we need to do to bring it to the market."
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