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: Condom history, effectiveness and testing

Where and when were condoms first used? Are condoms effective? Do condoms fail? How are condoms tested? What are the levels of condom availabilty in low income and developing countries?

The condom history

1000 BC

Condom use can be traced back several thousand years. It is known that around 1000 BC the ancient Egyptians used a linen sheath for protection against disease.1

100 - 200 AD

The earliest evidence of condom use in Europe comes from scenes in cave paintings at Combarelles in France.2 There is also some evidence that some form of condom was used in imperial Rome.3

1500's

The syphilis epidemic that spread across Europe gave rise to the first published account of the condom. Gabrielle Fallopius described a sheath of linen he claimed to have invented to protect men against syphilis. Having been found useful for prevention of infection, it was only later that the usefulness of the condom for the prevention of pregnancy was recognised.

Later in the 1500s, one of the first improvements to the condom was made, when the linen cloth sheaths were sometimes soaked in a chemical solution and then allowed to dry prior to use. These were the first spermicides on condoms.

1700's

old condom

The first published use of the world 'condum' was in a 1706 poem. It has also been suggested that Condom was a doctor in the time of Charles II. It is believed that he invented the device to help the king to prevent the birth of more illegitimate children.

Even the most famous lover of all, Casanova, was using the condom as a birth control as well as against infection.

Condoms made out of animal intestines began to be available. However, they were quite expensive and the unfortunate result was that they were often reused. This type of condom was described at the time as "an armour against pleasure, and a cobweb against infection".

In the second half of the 1700's, a trade in handmade condoms thrived in London and some shops where producing handbills and advertisements of condoms.

1800's

old condom

The use of condoms was affected by technological, economic and social development in Europe and the US in 1800s.

Condom manufacturing was revolutionised by the discovery of rubber vulcanisation by Goodyear (founder of the tyre company) and Hancock. This meant that is was possible to mass produce rubber goods including condoms quickly and cheaply. Vulcanisation is a process, which turns the rubber into a strong elastic material.

In 1861,the first advertisement for condoms was published in an American newspaper when The New York Times printed an ad. for 'Dr. Power's French Preventatives.'

In 1873, the Comstock Law was passed. Named after Anthony Comstock, the Comstock Law made illegal the advertising of any sort of birth control, and it also allowed the postal service to confiscate condoms sold through the mail.

1900's

condom

Until the 1920's, most condoms were manufactured by hand-dipping from rubber cement. These kinds of condoms aged quickly and the quality was doubtful.

In 1919, Frederick Killian initiated hand-dipping from natural rubber latex in Ohio. The latex condoms had the advantage of ageing less quickly and being thinner and odourless. These new type of condoms enjoyed a great expansion of sales. By the mid-1930s, the fifteen largest makers in the U.S. were producing 1.5 million condoms a day.

In 1957, the very first lubricated condom was launched in the UK by Durex.

From the early 1960s, use of condoms as a contraceptive device declined as the pill, the coil and sterilisation became more popular.

The use of the condom increased strikingly in many countries following the recognition of HIV/AIDS in the 1980's. Condoms also became available in pubs, bars, grocery stores and supermarkets.

The female condom has been available in Europe since 1992 and it was approved in 1993 by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Find more information about female condoms.

In 1994, the world's first polyurethane condom for men was launched in the US.

The 1990s also saw the introduction of coloured and flavoured condoms.

Present day

In more recent years, improved technology has enabled the thickness of the condom to decrease. Also, condom manufacturers have recognised that one size of condom does not fit all. You can now find condoms that are different shapes, widths and lengths.

Are condoms effective? Do condoms fail?

Are condoms effective at preventing infection with the HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?

Yes. Studies have shown that if a latex condom is used correctly every time you have sex, this is highly effective in providing protection against HIV.

condom

The evidence for this is clearest in studies of couples in which one person is infected with HIV and the other not. i.e. "discordant couples". In a study of discordant couples in Europe, among 123 couples who reported consistent condom use, none of the uninfected partners became infected. In contrast, among the 122 couples who used condoms inconsistently, 12 of the uninfected partners became infected.

In addition, correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of other STDs.16

As these studies indicate, condoms must be used consistently and correctly to provide maximum protection. Consistent use means using a condom from start to finish with each act of intercourse. Correct condom use should include:

  • Use a new condom for each act of intercourse
  • Put on the condom as soon as erection occurs and before any sexual contact (vaginal, anal or oral).
  • Hold the tip of the condom and unroll it onto the erect penis, leaving space at the tip of the condom, yet ensuring that no air is trapped in the condom's tip.
  • Adequate lubrication is important, but use only water-based lubricants on latex condoms. Oil-based lubricants such as petroleum jelly (vaseline), cold cream, hand lotion or baby oil can weaken the latex condom and are not recommended. However, oil-based lubricants can be used with condoms made of polyurethane.
  • Withdraw from the partner immediately after ejaculation, holding the condom firmly to keep it from slipping off.

Find more information about using condoms.

How often do condoms fail?

There is no one answer to this, as different studies have shown different results. Many studies of condom effectiveness have counted how often women have become pregnant when their partners have used condoms for birth control. This "failure rate" includes cases where the couple did not use a condom every time they had sex, or they did not use the condom correctly. Some studies have included the times the condom was torn accidentally by people using it.

The main reason that condoms sometimes fail to prevent HIV/STD infection or pregnancy is incorrect or inconsistent use, not the failure of the condom itself. Using oil-based lubricants can weaken the latex, causing the condom to break. Condoms can also be weakened by exposure to heat or sunlight or by age, or they can be torn by teeth or fingernails. Also, remember to check the expiry date of your condom!

How often do condoms break or slip off?

In the United States, most studies of breakage caused by fault in the condom itself have shown breakage rate is less than 2 condoms out of every 100 condoms. Studies also indicate that condoms slip off the penis in about 1-5% of acts of vaginal intercourse and slip down (but not off) about 3-13% of the time.

How are condoms tested?

stretchy

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates condoms to ensure their safety and effectiveness. Different countries have different regulatory agencies. For example, condoms in Europe that have been properly tested and approved should carry the CE Mark. Elsewhere in the world, you can find that condoms are ISO approved. Also, individual countries may have their own approval marks for condoms, for example, the Kitemark in the UK.

In the US, each condom is electronically tested for holes and defects. Also, condom manufacturers sample each lot of finished packaged condoms and visually examine them for holes using a water leak test. Condom manufacturers also tests lots for physical characteristics using the air burst test and the tensile (strength) test.

The FDA, for example, recognises domestic and international standards that specify that the rate of sampled condoms failing the water leak test, for each manufacturing lot of condoms, be less than 1 condom in 400.

Condom availability in low income and developing countries

In most countries where the HIV prevalence rate is high many people cannot afford to purchase condoms. Sexually active adults and teenagers need to rely on condoms provided to them for free. Governments often provide and promote condoms, but the poorest countries rely almost totally on donations from outside agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA).

stretchy

The UNPFA records information on the quantities of condoms donated to countries worldwide by a range of organisations. Analysis of data collected between 1990 and 2002 23, as displayed in the graph on the left, shows that the number of condoms donated worldwide rose dramatically between the year 2000 and 2002. Before 1996 however, the supply of condoms was always able to meet the demand, yet in 2002 that was no longer the case. Whilst 2.5 billion condoms were donated in 2002, the UNFPA estimated that 9.9 billion were needed in order to significantly reduce the spread of HIV.

For 120 of the countries that receive condom donations, Population Action International calculated the average number of condoms donated annually per male aged 15 - 59 between 1998 and 2002.25 It was found that 22 countries receive more than 5 condoms per male annually, the majority of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa whilst 55 countries receive only one or less condoms per male a year. Those countries such as Zambia and Namibia with the highest prevalence rates and whose financial need is greatest do receive the most donations. The highest amount of condoms donated to any country was to Swaziland, which received an average of 16 condoms per male per year.

Further information

For a look at all the questions we have been asked about condoms visit our Condoms and Spermicides page.

For information on using condoms visit our Using Condoms, Condom Types and Sizes page.

If you are under 18 why not visit our Teens and Condoms page, full of advice just for teens.

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