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You’ve heard of latex condoms. But what about polyurethane condoms?
Yup, the wonderful world of rubbers goes far beyond, well, rubber.
Polyurethane is basically a type of plastic. True, that doesn’t sound comfortable in a condom (or any barrier, for that matter).
On the contrary, polyurethane condoms are generally much, much thinner than latex barriers. We’re talking barely-there thin.
Intrigued? Scroll down to learn the pros and cons of polyurethane barriers— including how effective they are at protecting from STI transmission, and in the case of condoms, pregnancy.
Basically, all types!
For penetrative vaginal and anal intercourse, polyurethane external condoms and internal condoms — sometimes referred to as male condoms and female condoms, respectively — are available.
Jackie Walters, OB-GYN and author of “The Queen V: Everything You Need to Know About Intimacy and Down There Health Care” notes that contraceptive sponges are also made of polyurethane.
The sponge is a disk-shaped, spermicide-soaked device that gets inserted into the vagina prior to P-in-V intercourse.
Many experts, including Mary E. Fleming, MD, MPH, FACOG, and women’s health expert Kristy Goodman, OB-GYN, co-founder and CEO of PreConception, say that the often thrown around stat that condoms are 98 percent effective includes polyurethane condoms.
Meaning that polyurethane condoms are also 98 percent effective with perfect use.
However, a 2003 study published in
Over the course of the 6-month study, while 3.2 percent of latex condoms broke or slipped off, 8.4 percent of the polyurethane condoms did.
That means the polyurethane condoms are over 2.5 times likely to slip off or break. Yikes.
Dr. Jackie explains that it’s because polyurethane condoms are less elastic and looser-fitting than latex condoms.
This means that, compared with latex condoms, there’s a greater risk that polyurethane condoms may slip off or break during sex.
Any condom that slips off or breaks during vaginal intercourse is N-O-T effective at preventing pregnancy. If any sperm (which, FYI,
So how effective are polyurethane condoms at preventing pregnancy, exactly? According to the 2003 study, 94 percent effective with perfect use.
Perfect condom use means:
- using a condom that fits
- avoiding condoms that have expired or have been exposed to heat
- putting the condom on before there’s any genital contact
- leaving room in the condom for ejaculatory fluid
- using a new condom after every single use
- the condom wearer pulling out if they start to lose their erection
- holding the base of the condom while pulling out
- not using too much lube inside the condom or too little lube outside the condom
They still be might be a good option if you have a latex allergy.
Dr. Jackie calls out that putting just a little lube inside the condom is especially important for polyurethane condoms.
“It reduces friction, which decreases risk of breakage.”
Quick refresher: Some STIs are spread through bodily fluids.
- human papillomavirus (HPV)
- herpes simplex virus (HSV)
- trichomoniasis (“trich”)
- hepatitis A and B
Other conditions are spread through genital-to-genital contact, including:
According to Goodman, polyurethane condoms are very effective at preventing STIs spread through bodily fluids — when they don’t slip off or split.
Again, when they don’t slip or break, “they’re very effective at providing protection against STIs spread through skin-to-skin contact that exist on the area covered by the condom.”
They won’t provide protection for areas that aren’t covered. This is true for any barrier method, polyurethane or not.
However, as Dr. Jackie explains, “polyurethane condoms are more likely to slip or break than latex condoms, [so] they’re [slightly] less effective for preventing STI transmission.”
Ultimately, it comes down to what you find pleasant, tolerable, and comfortable in a barrier method.
But (!) they’re generally thinner than latex condoms, which could make you feel even closer to your partner.
Many polyurethane condoms are also transparent. Or, at the very least, less opaque than latex barriers.
So you may be able to see every vein, bump, and ridge of your partner’s anatomy even with the barrier on. Hot!
“They also heat up more naturally than latex condoms, so the temperature is more akin to that of a body than a barrier,” says Dr. Jackie.
Further, in the 2003 study, vulva-having individuals whose partners used polyurethane condoms during penetrative intercourse reported less genital irritation than those whose partners used latex condoms.
Also worth mentioning: Penis-having partners reported no change in overall comfort.
Unlike latex condoms which can’t be used with oil-based lubes (the oil degrades the latex), polyurethane condoms can.
That means coconut oil and products like Foria’s Awaken Arousal CBD Oil and Quim’s Smooth Operator CBD Intimate Serum are all fair game.
Oh, and while everyone’s snout has different preferences, Billy F., 28, and his girlfriend prefer polyurethane condoms (even though neither has a latex allergy) because “they smell like nothing.”
Again, due to their looser fit and decreased elasticity, polyurethane condoms are more prone to sliding or splitting during sex.
This makes them slightly less effective at reducing risk of pregnancy or STI transmission.
For folks who are using polyurethane condoms to prevent STI transmission and those who are using condoms as their sole form of birth control, these are very notable downsides.
Especially folks who, according to Dr. Jackie, would describe their sex as “vigorous.” Good to know!
Beyond that, she says, “They’re usually a little more expensive than latex condoms but not by a large amount.”
You can also expect polyurethane condoms to be slightly harder to find.
“Most stores will have them in their condom sections, but not all,” says Dr. Jackie.
There are fewer options typically available for polyurethane condoms, too. Those studded and ultra-ribbed latex condoms you may like so much, for example? May not exist in polyurethane!
“Latex condoms are still the preferred condom for STI and pregnancy prevention,” says Fleming.
For those who can’t tolerate latex condoms, polyurethane condoms are generally considered one of the better latex alternatives.
Polyisoprene condoms are another fan-fave for those with latex allergies.
While there are currently no studies showing the exact effectiveness, polyisoprene is stretchier than latex, which suggests it’s slightly less effective than latex condoms.
Keep in mind: “Polyisoprene shouldn’t be used with oil-based lubricants, as polyisoprene is degraded by oil,” says Dr. Jackie.
Animal skin condoms are another alternative to latex.
While they’re suitable for preventing pregnancy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t recommend them for the prevention of STIs.
They have small holes in them, which allows infectious particles to seep through.
Animal skin condoms shouldn’t be used by partners who haven’t exchanged their current STI status or when one or more partners has an STI.
Have a latex sensitivity or been dying to try out an oil-based lube? Shop the polyurethane condoms below.
While they’re slightly less effective at protecting against pregnancy and STI transmission, polyurethane condoms are a solid option for folks with latex sensitivity.
Just be sure to use lube to decrease friction, and therefore risk of rip.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.