Despite being one of the cheapest, most widely available, and historically established forms of birth control – and the only one that also offers protection against some sexually transmitted infections – condoms never seem to enjoy the popularity they deserve. Though some of this simply comes down to bad sex education, for many, the ubiquitous latex prophylactic can be uncomfortable, inconvenient, and, well, unsexy – and their use is suffering as a result.
The problem, according to a team of researchers from Boston University, is lubrication.
“Personal lubricants can increase user satisfaction with male condoms by reducing friction and yielding a slippery sensation,” they explain in a study published today in Royal Society Open Science.
“However, lubricants pose disadvantages of dilution in physiologic fluids and sloughing away over repeated articulations,” they continue, describing in an impressively unsexy way how and why commercial lubes wear off during sex – not ideal.
But luckily, they have a solution: a new, self-lubricating condom that becomes slippery when it comes into contact with liquid – any liquid.
“The idea was could we come up with technology where the condom would be kind of self-lubricating?” study co-author Mark Grinstaff told The Guardian. “In other words, in the presence of just moisture or water or vaginal fluids, it would basically become slippery.”
The team’s invention relies on a new kind of polymer coating for the latex already widely used in condom production – meaning current manufacturing processes would not need to be drastically updated to make the slippery sleeve.
Because the coating has not yet been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the team have been unable to test the new condom in, uh, real-world conditions. But when 33 people were asked to compare the moistened material with dry and lubricated latex dunked in water, 85 percent said that the new invention was “clearly the most slippery”, and nearly three-quarters chose it as their preferred condom material. And in anticipation of their invention’s success, the team have also subjected it to industrial testing, so they can also boast that it retains its slipperiness for at least 1,000 thrusts – that’s about 16 minutes of pump action, or about three times longer than the average bedroom session.
The researchers behind the lubricious innovation were supported by funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which challenged scientists to come up with new breakthroughs in condom technology back in 2013.
“Quite simply, condoms save lives,” wrote the project organizers at the time, "...but the success and impact of any public health tool hinges on that tool being used consistently and correctly by those who need it.”
And the team hope that their new condom will do just that – make people more willing to actually wrap it before they tap it.
The good news is, we shouldn’t have to wait too long for it to hit the shelves. A patent has already been filed on the extra-slippy condom, and the researchers say they hope it will be available in stores within a couple of years – bringing a much-needed 21st-century update to the contraceptive contraption.
“The last advance in condom technology is more than 50 years ago, and that was when silicon oil got introduced as a lubricant,” Grinstaff told The Guardian. “We are using our grandparents’ technology in the 21st century, which is crazy.”