Most male condoms available for sale today in the U.S. are made of latex. They all meet the same FDA standards and are considered to be an effective way to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of spreading sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. In the 1990s a few manufacturers began making non-latex male condoms for people with latex allergies who choose to use condoms. There are now five different non-latex male condoms and one non-latex female condom available for sale in the U.S.
Polyurethane Non-Latex CondomsPolyurethane has many advantages over latex as a condom material. It conducts heat better than latex (so may not be as noticeable). Polyurethane condoms also are thinner than most latex condoms, and they have little to no smell. They are also not damaged by exposure to oil-based products. However, polyurethane doesn’t stretch like latex or polyisoprene, so slippage and breakage rates are higher. In addition to this, the effectiveness of polyurethane condoms in preventing transmission of STDs is still being studied.
There are two brands of polyurethane male condom (Durex Avanti condoms and Trojan Supra condoms) and one brand of polyurethane female condom (Reality Female Condom). The World Health Organization notes that the female condom is effective in preventing re-infection of Trichomoniasis, and cites studies that show the material is an effective barrier to organisms smaller than those known to cause STDs. But the products are still too new to have enough long-term data to be able to definitively say that polyurethane condoms are an effective barrier.
As a result of the incomplete picture, the FDA requires manufacturers to label their condoms with warnings like this one:
The risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STD's), including AIDS (HIV infection), are not known for this condom. A study is being done. There are laboratory tests on this non-latex material. These tests show that organisms even as small as sperm and viruses like HIV cannot pass through it.
In a 2003 review of 10 studies that compared the effectiveness of latex versus polyurethane condoms, the authors concluded that while non-latex condoms are not equal in effectiveness as latex condoms, they are a suitable substitute for individuals with latex allergies.
Polyisoprene Non-Latex CondomsIn 2008 Lifestyle’s introduced a non-latex condom called SKYN made from a material called polyisoprene. This material is a synthetic version of a material derived from the sap of the hevea tree and contains no latex proteins, but is as strong and safe as latex. Polyisoprene condoms are not as thin as polyurethane, but they are stretchy and have a lower breakage and slippage rates. The company also made these non-latex condoms available at a much lower cost, comparable to latex condoms. Unlike polyurethane, SKYN condoms made of polyisoprene have been FDA approved and are considered an effective method of preventing pregnancy and reducing the spread of STDs.
”Natural Skin” or “Lamb Skin” CondomsThe oldest of all three materials to be used in condom making are natural animal membrane. People who use these condoms particularly like the feel of the natural membrane. There are however several drawbacks to these condoms. First, they do not provide protection against STDs. They are only considered to be effective as a prevention against unwanted pregnancy. Second, the natural skin condoms are extremely expensive (as much as $3 or $4 per condom). Lastly, natural skin condoms have a unique and some say barnyard smell.
Gallo MF, Grimes DA, Schulz KF. “Non-Latex Versus Latex Male Condoms for Contraception (Cochrane Review)” In: The Cochrane Library, Issue 2, 2003. Oxford: Update Software.
PATH, UNFPA. Female Condom: A Powerful Tool for Protection Seattle: UNFPA, PATH; 2006.
American Latex Allergy Association: Latex and Contraception