Nov. 3, 2009 -- In the heat of the moment when most couples use a condom, they might not be thinking about how their choice of contraceptive might work when inflated with 25 liters of air. Or what would happen if it was submerged in water.
But this is exactly what Consumers Union did. Their conclusion? While there was some variability in performance, it seems condom users are the winners.
Despite the variety of styles and brands tested, all of the condoms tested performed up to snuff for standards set by national and international regulatory bodies -- meaning that for those who choose to use condoms and use them properly while engaging in lovemaking, the risks of sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy will be low.
"All of them test at the standard," said Jamie Hirsh, an associate editor for Consumer Reports Health, which released its findings Monday. "On our own, more stringent test, we found that some were stronger than others."
Condoms are typically tested by inflating them wth 17 or 18 liters of air to test for breakage. For Consumer Reports' test, they inflated to 25 liters. Of the 20 brands tested, 7 types -- including varieties from Durex, Lifestyles and Trojan -- did not break in 500 to 600 tries.
And while Consumer Reports found differences among the condoms they tested, none of these differences showed that any of those condoms on the market shouldn't be used.
"This isn't a very scandalous story," said Hirsh. "None of them failed, all of them are fine, but some of them are even better than fine. If you're looking for the strongest, toughest condom, that's what that extra test gives you."
Consumer Reports testers also submerged the condoms to see if there were any signs of leaks.
"To have this done independently seems like a good idea," said Eli Coleman, director of the program in human sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "It's reassuring to know that most of these condoms are proven to be reliable, although [Consumer Reports] gives the caveat that still the most protection comes with using a condom properly."
Does Study Create Too Much Friction? Or Not Enough?
While the Consumer Reports study used methods similar to those that would be used by the Food and Drug Administration, those may not be ideal, according to some.
Sheryl Kingsberg, division chief OB/GYN University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said a more important measure for a condom is the "ability to withstand vigorous sexual activity," in other words, a "friction test would be better."
Hirsh acknowledged that user testing was one area Consumer Reports would like to have studied but could not.
"It would be really interesting to do a panel test of people using them along with our laboratory testing," she said. However, "getting people to volunteer poses a problem, even among staff who would test with their partners. You have to get enough volunteers that what you find means something significantly."
Hirsh said each couple would then have to test at least 20 different models.
"We haven't gotten enough people to volunteer," she said, although Consumer Reports reviews condoms periodically, and may try to recruit more volunteers in the future.
The study also drew some pushback from Global Protection, whose Night Light Glow In The Dark Condom finished last in the study. It got 38 points, 36 fewer than the second-to-last finisher.
While Consumer Reports said that all condoms it tested got passing grades, Jared Fennelly, a spokesman for Global Protection, said the results the magazine published may still give people the wrong impression. He said the condoms Global Protection manufactures are still 97 to 98 percent effective when used properly, just like any other brand.
"There's an implication there, and that's just one thing we would hope to clarify," he said.
Finding The Right Fit
Even if all condoms on the market work properly, Coleman said there are still some obstacles created when people use them.
Although it remains unclear exactly how often these mistakes are made, Coleman said some errors include tearing condoms by opening their packages with one's teeth. People may also not allow enough air in the tip to keep the condom from coming off during ejaculation, put them on backward, not put them on soon enough, use a condom after the expiration date, and not use enough lubricant.
"These tests show the reliability and integrity of the condoms, but they don't take into account what happens when humans are using them," said Coleman.
But one important thing this study does show, he said, is the availability of options for safer sex.
"I don't think people even realize that there are so many choices and I think it's important people learn about the variety of condoms and find one they feel comfortable with and enjoy using," said Coleman.
"Many of these condoms have been improved to enhance pleasure and sensitivity while maintaining the integrity and the reliability of the condom," he said. "This is very reassuring that the enhancements for pleasure have not reduced the reliability for protection."
Cari Nierenberg contributed reporting.