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Not to ruin the fun, but if you’re having sex, you should be proactively concerned about getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI). They are incredibly common – more than half of all people will have an STI at some point in their lives. Although some STIs are curable, some aren’t and you could be left managing the infection for the rest of your life.
Enter the mighty condom. They prevent the spread of STIs while simultaneously protecting against unwanted pregnancy. What a double-duty hero…and still we’re not great at using them. In fact, in the United States, less than half of men ages 18 to 24 used a condom with their last sexual partner and less than 30 percent of men 25 to 34 used a condom as protection with their last partner.
We hear it often enough, “but…condoms break!” It’s a common and age-old excuse for not wearing one. Maybe it’s happened to you or maybe you’ve heard about it happening to someone else. Either way… is it actually something that happens often and if so, whose fault is it? Do condoms break because they’re not made well or are we just not using them correctly?
To investigate, we took a deep dive into the world of condom manufacturing. How are they made? How are they tested? How do they break? Does the type of condom effect durability?
Spoiler: It’s not the condom. It’s you.
While the early days of condoms were a veritable free-for-all when it came to safety and effectiveness, today condom manufacturing is a highly regulated business. The FDA and something called the ASTM (the American Society for Testing and Materials) have very specific criteria, standards, and requirements for every type of condom out there. From minimum length to maximum width, air burst pressure and volume tests, and package integrity measures…believe us when we say, the condoms you have in your drawer have been carefully designed, flawlessly manufactured, and rigorously tested.
Let’s take a look at America’s number one selling brand, Trojan, as a specific example.
At the Trojan condom manufacturing facility alone, 1 million condoms are made each day. Different types of condoms, different colors, different materials; all go through the same testing process. Some of these tests are performed on each and every condom while others are spot tests that randomly pull a few condoms to ensure uniformity.
Every single condom you’ve ever unwrapped has gone through what’s called an electric conductance test. This is a non-destructive test that checks for microscopic holes. If a condom is perfect, no electricity will be able to pass through it and it will move along the assembly line to be packaged and sold. Those that fail are destroyed.
The spot tests are the most interesting though. These tests destroy the condom but ensure that the condoms being manufactured on the assembly line that day are perfect. In the US, a batch of condoms cannot be sold if 5 or more condoms per 1,000 fail any of the tests.
There’s the water-leak test, which is basically exactly what it sounds like. They fill up a condom with water and look for leaks…high-tech, right? The next is the tensile test, or the stretch test. This involves cutting a band from the shaft of a condom and testing how far it can be stretched before it breaks. Most condoms can stretch to 750% of their original width! The final test is the airburst test, which, if we’re being honest, looks incredibly fun to play around with. In a very scientific, laboratory-looking space, condoms are fitted over an air valve and filled with air until they burst. This test is measuring the volume and pressure of the air inside the condom, which helps determine their overall strength. The results of this test are stacked up against national and international standards - only condoms that consistently achieve these standards make it to market.
So now that we know how carefully condoms are made, it’s time to concede that it really might just be a human error that’s causing condoms to break. That said, let’s look at what could be causing the problem. While putting on a condom is relatively easy, there are a few important steps that you might be missing.
Check yourself! Did you know there was more to putting on a condom correctly than “open package and unroll onto penis”?
- The pillow test: Say you’re at the grocery store buying chips. You reach for a bag…but it looks a little deflated and feels like there’s not enough air in the bag. You would be wary of that bag of chips and reach for a different package, am I right? Well, you should be just as wary of a condom that doesn’t pass the “pillow check”. Feel the package – is there a little bit of air in there? There should be! If there isn’t, toss the condom and grab a new one. It’s likely that there is a tiny hole in the wrapper that could compromise the durability of the condom.
- Check the expiration date: A condom that’s been hanging around in your drawer too long shouldn’t be used. Every condom will have an expiration date stamped onto its wrapper; if its time has passed, let it go. And a word to the wise – don’t leave this step for the moment that you’re fumbling for a condom, poised and ready for the act. Do yourself a favor and check the expiration dates on your condom stash every few months. That way, you know any condom you reach for in the heat of the moment is good to go.
- Open the package carefully: Ask different people what that means and you’ll get a variety of answers. Take this answer from the experts…there’s actually a few things involved. Slide the condom to the side so that it’s out of the way and then rip with your FINGERS from ridge to ridge. Don’t fancy yourself sexy and get in there with your teeth. It’s happened before and it will happen again…opening a condom with something other than your fingers runs the risk of tearing the condom.
- Make sure you’re putting it on the right way: Once you’ve put on a condom a few times, you’ll know what the “right way” is (edges curl up and around, not down and under), but don’t get sloppy. Even in the dark, take an extra beat to make sure the condom is going on correctly. You can simply look at it closely, or in the dark, put a finger in the center and make sure it’s going to roll down. What happens if you start to put it on the wrong way? Do NOT flip that sucker over and use it. If you do, there’s now precum on the outside of the condom, which is headed inside your partner. While it’s somewhat unlikely, it’s still possible to spread an STI or cause a pregnancy this way. If you start to put a condom on the wrong way and it doesn’t roll down correctly, throw it away and get a new one.
- Add lube. “But condoms are already lubricated!” Truth. Most are, but more lube never hurt anyone! And more lube certainly helps prevent condoms from ripping because of too much friction. More lube also feels better. Adding a few drops of extra lubricant to the inside of the condom can make condom use feel better for the wearer and adding a little to the outside will make it feel better for the receiver. Having a marathon session? Keep adding lube as you go to keep things slippery. Another important note to keep your condom intact– make sure you’re using water-based or silicone lubricant. Using an oil based lube with a condom is a big “no-no”. The oil will break down the latex of the condom causing it to tear.
- Pinch the tip. Let’s repeat that: pinch the tip! This is hands-down the number one step that people skip and the primary reason that condoms break. Let’s talk about why this step is so important. Leaving room at the tip of the condom allows space for ejaculation to happen. With no extra space but a “load” of extra volume….pop! Pinching the tip of the condom also helps to keep air out of the condom. Too much air in the reservoir tip can also cause a condom to burst. When we teach proper condom use, we stress holding the tip of the condom with two fingers and a thumb to really ensure that there is enough space. Keep holding the whole time you’re rolling the condom down.
- Roll the condom all the way to the base of the penis. Make sure your condom is on fully. Covering as much skin as possible helps prevent the spread of STIs that are transmitted through skin-to-skin sexual contact. It will also help the condom stay on properly throughout your playtime.
- Check the condom periodically. Condoms can slip off, so check every once in a while to make sure you can still feel the rim of the condom at the base of the penis. If it does start to come off, you can try to roll it back down, but putting on a new condom might be a better option. If the condom does come off inside your partner, fear not, a vagina is a closed space. Most people will be able to reach in with a finger or two and pull it out. If you can’t get it, a clinic visit is your next option. A condom lost in a rectum is a different story. Most people will pass the condom with their next bowel movement, but if it doesn’t come out, you’ll definitely want to see a doctor to have it removed.
- Hold the rim as you pull out. Again with the preventing the condom from coming off inside your partner! After ejaculation the penis will soften making it more likely that the condom isn’t fitting as snugly as before. Hold onto the rim, or the bottom of the condom, as you pull out to make sure it’s not left inside someone. You’ve gone to a lot of work to protect yourself and your partner. Don’t let all that work go to waste now!
10. Throw the condom in the trash. This isn’t something that has to do with using a condom properly, but it does have to do with your toilet working properly. Like everything else aside from toilet paper, condoms should not be flushed down the toilet. They will clog your pipes and cause headaches that you don’t want to have to explain.
Did you pass the test? Do you follow all the steps? If you do, you’re much less likely to have any “oh-no” moments in the future. Take this knowledge, go forth and spread the word! Let’s change the reputation of condoms back to the strong and durable protection that they’re made to be!