Welcome to the 'Next Generation of Condoms'

The prophylactic has remained virtually unchanged for the past 100 years. But a group of scientists and inventors is looking to change that.

Photo Credit: Misha Gravenor

Welcome to the future — of pleasure, that is.

No we're not talking about the invisible bike helmetor better designed cup holders (although someone should really invent those). We're talking about achieving a major breakthrough in one of the world's most important public heath issues and breaking through the final frontier in your sex life.

Yes, that's right. We're talking about the next generation of condoms.

Many public health crises could be alleviated if sex partners wrapped up more often — but the reality is that far too few do, whether out of consideration for convenience or comfort. To address the problem, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called for proposals to develop "the next generation of condoms." Most of the models that have made it to the final round of competition utilize material other than latex, including polyurethane (an elastic plastic typically thinner and stronger than latex), polyethylene (a thin plastic possibly stronger than polyurethane but less elastic), nanomaterials like graphene, and materials that stimulate human mucosal tissue, reportsMen's Journal. 

The challenge is that thinner condom designs require stronger material, which decreases sensitivity. Thinner material can also constrict blood flow, which likewise decreases sensitivity. 

One man, Danny Resnic, innovated his own condom independent of the Gates competiton: an accordion-like take on the original tube design. Explaining his reasoning behind the innovation, Resnic explained, "Because we have this reciprocating motion, we're not reliant on a condom being microthin," Resnic says. "We're not transferring sensation from the outside to the inside – we're creating sensation on the inside. So it's not about material; it's about mechanics and engineering."

Resnic expects his condom to hit the market in 2015, after it is submitted for regulatory approval. Condoms selected by the Gates competition should hit the market around the same time. 

The reason there has been so little innovation in the building of condoms, explains one researcher, is that there are a few companies who have a monopoly on the condom market. "One of the problems with the condom industry is the technology is 30 years behind the times, [because] there's no incentive for people to do a lot of research [since] they've got a captive market," says Richard Chartoff, director of the Polymer Characterization and Thermal Analysis Laboratory at the University of Oregon, to Men's Journal. 

As Men's Journal explains:
The global condom market is dominated by a few major players – Trojan, Durex, Australian maker Ansell, and Japanese company Okamoto. Because latex is best used fresh, much manufacturing occurs in Malaysia, Thailand, or tropical countries with direct access to it, which has allowed these firms to establish a kind of latex cartel – and, Resnic says, to cling tight to their existing infrastructure. "They are locked into this tight-fitting rolled condom because their factories are set up with that equipment. To move to anything else is a very expensive proposition."
 
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