Desiging a better condom

Researchers are looking for ways to make the condom, a public health success, even better.

Now here’s a factoid for you: according to the WHO, more than a million STIs are acquired around the world daily. With so many infections, it’s no wonder some are becoming resistant to antibiotics

Cheap and effective, condoms are a workhorse of public health, helping to potentially avert millions of HIV cases, unintended pregnancies, and STIs each year. But still, those million-a-day are acquired, and convincing people to use condoms can be difficult.

“From our research, many want to use condoms but have had negative experiences with condom use, believe the ‘bad reputation’ of condoms, or do not know much about correct condom use and how to use condoms while experiencing pleasure,” William Yarber, the senior director of the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention at Indiana University, told the BBC’s Chermaine Lee

Which is why researchers are racing to develop the condom of tomorrow.

Lean and mean: Let’s be real, here: you also likely know/have been with/are someone who perhaps doesn’t use a condom as often as they should because of how they feel.

Stronger materials could help alleviate complaints about both comfort and function, allowing a thinner condom that also breaks less often. Multiple groups are working on ways to make condoms stronger.

Aravind Vijayaraghavan, a materials scientist at the University of Manchester, believes that graphene could be the key — “the world’s thinnest, lightest, strongest and best heat conductive material,” as he told Lee.

Graphene is impossibly thin, only one atom thick, but also incredibly strong. It’s kind of like the AI of materials science, showing up all over the place in new and exciting ways (making mosquito repellant clothes, for instance).

By incorporating graphene, a condom could be made 60% stronger — or 20% thinner. 

“We do this by combining the strong graphene particles with a weak polymer, like natural rubber latex or polyurethane,” Vijayaraghavan explained. “The graphene then imparts its strength to the weak polymer to make it stronger by reinforcing it at the nano-scale.”

In Australia, researchers are lacing condoms with the fibres of spinifex grass, which Indigenous communities have used for centuries in the creation of weapons and tools.

Latex concerns: The most common condom material, latex, poses some challenges of its own. Millions of people are allergic to it, and many who aren’t find it uncomfortable and requiring lubrication.

Another team of Australian researchers is attempting to avoid latex altogether, using a material called hydrogel. University of Wollongong biomedical engineer Robert Gorkin is developing hydrogel condoms using the material his team already used to make prosthetic organs; the end result are condoms that are durable, stretchy, and feel like actual skin.

“We’re looking at a new condom platform that is to replace the legacy materials of latex with a new experience,” Gorkin told Rolling Stone. “We approached this not just as a scientific innovation, but as what does a condom need to be?”

The hydrogel material could have anti-STI medication infused right into them, and since they contain water, can be self-lubricating.

Back stateside, Lee reports on another group who think they have a slick solution to the lubrication process. A Boston University team has added a thin layer of water-loving molecules to the surface of a latex condom. When it gets wet, the layer gets slippery — meaning bodily fluids now double as lube for the condom, too. 

The team tells the BBC’s Lee their condoms can withstand 1,000 thrusts, which is about 400 more than a general condom, and also hilariously informs us that “thrusts” is a scientific unit of measurement in at least one lab.

Wrapping up: Of course, even a condom which could handle a million thrusts means little if people don’t use it correctly — or at all.

Cynthia Graham, a professor of sexual and reproductive health at the University of Southampton and a researcher on The Kinsey Institute‘s condom team, has been studying the potential for condoms with built-in applicators. The condom features a pull tab open for the package — to help prevent damage to the condom in the tearing-open process, which is likely not to be done delicately and deliberately — and unrolling strips that come off when the condom is completely unfurled. 

In their study, published in the International Journal of STD & AIDS, people who were shown videos of how the condom would work reported that they thought putting them on would be faster and easier, as well as making them feel more confident they did it right — and making sex more “playful and pleasurable,” to boot. 

All the fail safes and guidance in the world won’t work if that condom never gets put on, however.

“It is pretty common for people not to use condoms — they use them to prevent pregnancy instead of STIs,” Graham told Lee. “What’s worse is that a lot of young people thought most of them are treatable, so they are not concerned about them.”

Those young people obviously haven’t heard about super-gonorrhea.

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