Do polyurethane condoms protect as well against STIs as latex?

Dear Alice,

Avanti is the make of a condom that is made from polyurethane rather than latex. I prefer this type of condom over latex as they can be thinner and they transmit heat better than latex. Recently the boxes have stickers on them warning that the condoms safety vis a vis HIV transmission is unknown. What's taking them so long? Do you have any inside information on their relative porosity?

— Prefers the Pleasures of Polyurethane

Dear Prefers the Pleasures of Polyurethane, 

Discovering your preferences and pleasures when it comes to safer sex is a worthwhile and hopefully, most of the time, fun endeavor! When it comes to external condoms, there tend to be many sources of information available, with some being more or less reliable than others. In the 1990s, the packaging of the Avanti polyurethane condom made claims about the condom's protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) believed to be misleading. At the time, according to officials at the FDA, these claims made by the condom manufacturer weren't backed by clinical efficacy testing for contraception or STIs. Recent lab studies have now provided evidence that polyurethane condoms (not associated with a specific brand) are approved by the FDA and are comparable to latex condoms as a barrier to sperm, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and other STIs.  

Before comparing polyurethane with other substances, it can be helpful to know what it is. Polyurethane is a plastic that’s stronger than latex but not quite as stretchy. For that reason, they can be stored for longer periods of time but are slightly more likely to break or slip. However, this performance difference is small and doesn’t have much of an effect on the condom's overall efficacy. With differences in safety considered to be minimal, choosing between the two may come down to sensation, comfort, or concerns such as allergies. As you’ve mentioned, some people may prefer polyurethane condoms as they transmit heat better due to their thinner material, which can increase sensitivity during sex. 

If you find yourself averse to latex condoms, your options aren’t limited to polyurethane condoms, though. Polyisoprene condoms provide a middle ground between the two as they’re looser than latex condoms but tighter and more stretchy than polyurethane condoms. They’re made from synthetic rubber, which bypass concerns about any latex allergies and provides comparable levels of pregnancy and STI prevention. 

These are some types of condoms available, but throw in different sizes or even flavored choices and the options may be daunting. General guidance includes using appropriate lube to minimize friction in order to prevent breakage, regardless of the condom you choose. In addition, ensuring the condom isn’t too tight or too loose can prevent slippage. If you have lingering questions about condom options or how to properly use them, you may want to check out some of the Q&As in the Go Ask Alice! Condoms archive. You may also want to speak with a health educator or health promotion specialist who may be able to provide some additional information about condom usage or selection. 

Whatever you decide, latex, polyurethane, and polyisoprene condoms all provide effective levels of protection if used consistently and correctly. That's pleasurable news for everyone! 

Last updated Feb 19, 2021
Originally published Jun 06, 1997

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