Feb. 14, 2011 -- February is the shortest month, but don't be fooled; it has still been declared National Condom Month. More than 5 billion condoms worldwide are sold every year, according to Michael S. Zedalis, senior vice president in charge of science and technology for condom-maker Ansell Limited.
Known as Dr. Condom to his friends and colleagues, Zedalis offers seven factoids you probably don't know -- or didn't think to ask -- about the oft-maligned yet always useful "love glove."
When Rubber Hits the Road
Although their precise purpose is unclear, condoms are depicted on male hieroglyphics figures dating back to ancient Egypt. Protective sheaths used in the early 1500s were made from ill-fitting animal bladders or intestines, although some of the more imaginative designs were made of metal.
Most were glandular condoms, meaning they were shaped to fit over just the tip of the penis rather than the entire organ. Not especially effective in preventing pregnancy or disease, they were prone to pulling off, breaking or tearing. And they were reusable. The first modern condoms were made from real rubber and produced by Goodyear. Yep, they make tires, too.
The Shape of Things
The majority of condoms are now made from soft, ultra-thin synthetic materials that are dipped onto glass-formers that come in an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes, certainly many more than you would think are anatomically possible.
The forms are cleaned, dipped into latex -- often twice -- then the latex is cured and stripped from the glass form. Next, "naked condoms" are washed and lightly powdered to remove the stickiness. Finally, they're electronically tested for holes, rolled, lubricated and foiled.
Bursting the Bubble
Ansell, makers of LifeStyles condoms, often receive e-mails from eager recruits volunteering to report for official condom-testing duty. In reality, 100 percent of condoms are checked using electric charges that are sent through the condom to spot any holes or tears.
A random sampling is filled with water to further find imperfections while another group of samples is pumped full of air to measure their breaking point. Zedalis said that condom makers do employ consenting couples for focus groups to try out new shapes, sizes, textures and flavors, some of whom don't make it out of the building before reporting their findings.
The average U.S. condom user is between the ages of 18 and 24 and about 70 percent of condom purchases are made by men. The average cost for a 12-pack is $10.99, although they are often less expensive at big box stores such as Target and Walmart.
Condom preferences vary by country. In the United States, Zedalis noted that preferences are relatively "meat and potatoes." Users don't flock to the fancier offerings, although there has been a lot of interest lately in models featuring organic materials and lubricants.
Europeans like their textures, shapes and box designs a bit racier while Brazilians seem to have a taste for menthol and peppermint. Not surprisingly, the Chinese are the heaviest users; surprisingly, the British come in second, according to Australia-based Ansell. The United States ranks sixth.
"I receive up to eight new ideas a month from interested consumers," Zedalis said. "Almost all of them claim to have invented the greatest condom ever known."
Most submissions fall into one of two general categories: Either adding additional texture such as bumps, or changing to a unique shape that probably isn't practical to manufacture.
Zedalis has recently been getting a lot of suggestions about adding bells and whistles. Literally. "People are interested in condoms that play music," he said. "This is possible using the same technology found in greeting cards."
Imagine those self-recorded messages.
While the female condom was introduced to this country in 1993, Zedalis noted that it has not been a hit. "It's perceived as difficult to use and uncomfortable," he said.
The typical model consists of a pocket or pouch that fits over the opening of the vagina. It's inserted by a flexible ring that remains on the outside of the vagina to hold it in place, guide intercourse and prevent internal bunching.
An idea that has been better received: Many condom makers are exploring the addition of L-arginine to the lubricant, a compound that purports to enhance female pleasure.
Short of abstinence, Zedalis said, condoms are the most effective form of birth control. While not perfect, they also have the benefit of helping to prevent sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, genital herpes and chlamydia.
Despite the quest for ever-increasing thinness and comfort, condoms are an effective barrier not only to sperm but viruses and bacteria as well.
Once condoms leave the factory, samples are again pulled and tested for holes and defects and then again by the Food and Drug Administration. Acceptable failure rates are about 5 per 1,000, although, Zedalis said, most manufacturers aim for rates up to 10 times better than that.