Consumer Reports published its ratings of condoms this month, putting 23 different types of latex condoms to the test. The consumer watchdogs used compressed air – rather than conventional means – to measure condom strength and found “no correlation between performance and price, thickness or the country of manufacture.”
While all models tested met minimum industry standards, some did perform better than others. Durex Extra Sensitive Lubricated took first place, followed by Durex Performax Lubricated and Lifestyles Classic Collection Ultra Sensitive Lubricated. The classic Trojan-Enz faired poorly at 18th.
The average condom broke only after taking 38 liters of air.
Lifestyles Tuxedo Black, the condom currently distributed at Belknap’s Student Health Services, was not among the models tested.
However, two of the models distributed by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) under their own brand name, “Assorted Colors” and “Honeydew,” were ranked dead last, their strength being significantly lower compared to the other brands. PPFA President Gloria Feldt responded with a statement pointing out that, despite Consumer Reports’ test results, her group’s condoms still met minimum industry standards.
Feldt said in her statement that Planned Parenthood “will continue to conduct rigorous testing and monitoring to ensure that all of our condoms remain top-quality products.” The statement also announced that PPFA has improved its Honeydew condoms to ensure better performance.
But C.R.’s testing did not address the issue of condom effectiveness at the microscopic level: permeability. A 1998 study at the Naval Research Laboratory tested the permeability of two different latex condoms of 50 and 90 microns (millionths of a meter) thickness. They observed that, regardless of condom thickness, particles 0.1 microns in diameter penetrated at the rate of over one million per square centimeter over 30 minutes.
But latex is a material of intrinsic irregularity, according to researchers. In the Naval Research Laboratory study, particles a full micron in size also passed though, at the rate of 1000 per half-hour over the same area. The AIDS virus is 0.15 microns across. Hepatitis B is tinier still. Using electron microscopy, Naval Research Laboratory scientists also found “maximum inherent flaws” up to 700 times the diameter of the AIDS virus, and easily wide enough for sperm to wriggle though a dozen abreast.
Other studies on condom effectiveness in prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have shown varied results. The Centers for Disease Control Web site discusses these in detail at http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pubs/facts/condoms.htm, but conclude that more research must be done.
Still, condoms are a statistically effective means of contraception when used consistently, with only five percent of women relying exclusively on condoms having unintended pregnancies per year. And while their precise value in preventing STI transmission is still in contention pending further research, according to many health experts, they remain the safest bet for protection against STIs.