2 min

About those free condoms

They meet the ISO standards but how reliable are they?

Who thought condoms could be so exciting? Here I am again talking about them for the second column in a row. Might seem like overkill, but I wanted to clarify a few points and delve more deeply into others.

First of all, just about everything legally available for sale in Canada must meet some kind of minimum standards. Condoms are no exception.

Condoms in Canada and, since 2009, the US must adhere to the generally respected International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) standards on condoms. This means the free condoms distributed by groups such as the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) must pass those standards. But we can and should still ask: How well do they pass those standards? With flying colours? Do they just squeak by? I am surprised by how difficult it is to get this information.

I tried again to get reliability ratings and breakage data from the BCCDC, but although they searched again, they still couldn’t find any data.

The ISO standards can’t prohibit breakage completely — that would be unrealistic. All condom brands break sometimes. The question is how often.

A February 2010 study by the independent testing group Consumer Reports shows variability in the breakage rates — even among the brands that pass the ISO standards.

The Durex Sensi-Creme condoms distributed free locally weren’t tested in the 2010 study, and the manufacturers say they have no independent breakage data, so it’s hard to say exactly how reliable they are beyond meeting the minimum safety standards.

Maybe we have to rely for now on anecdotal evidence?

I asked Jody Jollimore at Vancouver’s Health Initiative for Men (HIM) about their condom distribution program. Though they have not done a formal survey of their condom users, Jollimore says he regularly receives good feedback, including that the Durex condoms are thinner and feel better than the LifeStyles brand they used to hand out.

Jollimore says he hasn’t heard reports of the Durex condoms breaking, though he agrees that any brand will break some of the time. So if HIM gives out 150,000 condoms in a year, a one-percent breakage rate (as indicated in straight studies) would mean that 1,500 would be expected to break. But no one has reported condom breakage to HIM.

Elgin Lim of Positive Living, which uses the same Durex condoms supplied by the BCCDC, says their distribution program doesn’t hear reports of breakage either, though some men seem less than fond of the fit.

Could gay men be getting so much practice that we’re just better condom users? It seems unlikely that we’ve eliminated condom breakage entirely, but I suppose we could have a slightly lower rate.

In social situations, I don’t hear about condoms breaking either, but as a therapist I do. Clients tell me about how breakage affects their relationships and their sense of safety and security around sex. But it seems gay men don’t like to talk about condom breakage socially.

So what should we make of the condoms being distributed free by our community agencies? Are they safe? Well, they must have passed the ISO  standards or they wouldn’t be available at all. But having passed those standards, how do they measure up? We still don’t know for sure.

I hope somebody looks into this further and makes the statistics easily and publicly accessible so we can ensure we’re getting the most reliable brand out there — and one that’s fun to use. Because the bottom line is, it’s important to use them, so they’d better be the best quality possible.

A final happy thought: Jollimore says HIM is poised to respond to requests for larger and non-latex condoms and hopes to start stocking some of each at their Sexual Health Centre next month.