Should You Be Using 'Organic' Condoms?
The down and dirty on 'organic condoms'—and why most condom brands don't want you to know what's used to make them.
On a trip to the drug store for condoms, it's safe to say most women try to get in and get out; You probably aren't checking the box for ingredients like you might with say, your skin-care. Rubbers are rubbers, right?
Well, not exactly: An alarming amount of condoms today contain the carcinogen nitrosamines—formed within the condom when the latex is heated and molded from a liquid to solid. This isn't new information; studies have reported nitrosamines in condoms for more than a decade, like this 2001 toxicological evaluation. More recently, a petition by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is pushing to require the FDA to regulate carcinogens in products like condoms, noting that nitrosamines have been linked to gastric cancers. (Um, yikes!)
Aggressive dyes and irritating synthetic fragrances are also commonplace in standard condoms, and as you probably assumed, all this isn't exactly vagina-friendly. (Here's why model Tess Holliday never EVER uses scented products on her vagina.)
The good news is that a fresh crop of condom brands claiming to be more "vagina-friendly," like Sustain Natural and Lovability, are pushing to remove these toxic ingredients, offering condoms without dyes, fragrances, parabens, and yes, even nitrosamines.
Here, the full scoop on the potential dangers of traditional condoms—and whether or not you should make the switch. (Related: Here are 8 scary condom mistakes you might be making.)
Potentially Harmful Ingredients Found In Condoms
The problem with checking ingredients on traditional condoms is that most of us don't have the first clue what they really mean. "The FDA doesn't require condom manufacturers to explain their ingredients to consumers," explains Meika Hollender, co-founder of Sustain Natural, a brand of vagina-friendly products like tampons, condoms, and lube. "But we have a right to know what is going into our bodies."
And not only do condoms go inside of you—but since the vagina is a very absorbent part of the body, what gets absorbed bypasses the liver and goes straight into your bloodstream, explains Sherry Ross, M.D., an ob-gyn and author of She-ology. What is up for debate is just how harmful that can be. "It's a very small and safe amount of chemicals in latex condoms that ultimately gets into the bloodstream," adds Dr. Ross.
Still, it makes sense to decrease your overall total exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, especially if using condoms on a routine basis, says Caitlin O'Connor, a registered naturopathic doctor.
Switching could protect your body against the following:
Nitrosamines (carcinogenic compounds) are released when latex comes into contact with bodily fluids, says Hollender. That's why brands like Sustain take extra steps to add a chemical accelerator to remove the formation of nitrosamines in production.
Most of the research on nitrosamines is related to the ingestion of nitrosamine and its impact on stomach and colon cancer. "There is not much research on how the nitrosamines in condoms could influence cancer risk, but what research is available indicates that the risk is quite low," says O'Connor. "The amount of nitrosamine, the relatively short duration of exposure, and what actually gets absorbed by the mucous membranes seems to be well below the threshold for cancer induction," she says.
Parabens, also commonly found in condoms and readily absorbable through the skin and mucous membranes, are another concern with standard condoms. Not only can parabens cause allergic reactions and skin irritations, but they are thought to mimic estrogens in the body in a way that could influence some cancers, says O'Connor. "While the amount of exposure is likely quite low with condoms, the amount of total exposure through all personal products combined can be quite high."
Lubricants are another potentially harmful ingredient found in most condoms. Why? "Many use glycerin, which can promote yeast growth," says O'Connor. "Others use nonoxynol-9, a spermicide that was thought to improve condom efficacy, but that studies have since shown that was not the case. And in fact, it may increase STI risk as it can be damaging to the cells of the mucous membrane, making them more susceptible to infection." N-9 can also be irritating and cause allergic reactions, so it is best avoided all around, adds O'Connor. (Related: I Tried Foria Weed Lube and It Totally Changed My Sex Life)
"Silicone is a better option and is used in most of the more 'vagina-friendly' condoms," she says.
Dyes, Flavors, and Fragrances
Despite the lack of research on the harm of using certain chemicals, switching from traditional condoms also protects your vagina from fragrances, dyes, and flavors. "None of these belong in the vagina and should be avoided because they can cause irritations, allergic reactions, alter pH, and feed yeast, and bacteria," says O'Connor.
Dr. Ross adds that—in addition to yeast and bacterial infections—latex condoms packed with dyes and fragrances can trigger an allergic reaction. Dr. Ross suggests that women with latex sensitivity try 'organic' or vagina-friendly alternatives since fewer chemicals and additives are used. (Related: 10 Things to Never Put In Your Vagina)
The Benefits of 'Organic' Condoms—and What to Look for
If you want to avoid any of the potentially harmful ingredients and side effects listed above, there's an influx of organic brands making less irritating condoms with non-toxic ingredients, including Sustain Natural, L. Condom, GLYDE, and Lovability.
When reading the boxes, look for some of the following logos (all of which Dr. Ross says indicate the condom will be more vagina-friendly): Certified Vegan, PETA-approved, and Green Business Network certified.
FYI, the actual term "organic" on a condom box indicates one or some ingredients are certified organic, but latex condoms can never technically be called organic since there's no organic certifying body that certifies latex, says Hollender. She advises looking for condoms that say they are "free of chemicals."
Looking for natural rubber that's sustainably grown can help with irritation and the environment. If you see the stamp of FSC Certified rubber on the box, it means the latex in those condoms came from a plantation that protects and maintains the health of its biodiversity, extracting correctly, using no pesticides, and taking care of the trees. (Yup, latex comes from trees.)
So, Do You Really Need to Use Organic Condoms?
At the end of the day, if the question is organic condom or no condom, the healthy choice is going to be the chemical-filled condom every time, since using condoms is the most effective way for sexually active people to decrease the risk of STIs while also preventing pregnancy. (Plus all condoms are healthy for your vagina because they protect your vagina from semen, which can alter your vaginal pH.)
However, if you have the budget (the difference is about $2 more from standard name-brand condoms to vagina-friendly options) and the foresight to opt for condoms that are equally as effective and made without potentially harmful additives, you should err on the side of caution, says O'Connor. After all, if we're talking truly safe sex, chemical-free takes "protection" a step further.
Bottom line: Let's start pulling out our reading glasses in front of the condom aisle, asking companies if their ingredients are vagina-safe (vagina is NOT a taboo word), voting with our purchasing dollars, and carrying rubbers that make us feel the most empowered.