Fast Fact: Condoms have been used for centuries to protect against disease and pregnancy, and the Ancient Egyptians may have been using condoms as early as 1350 BC!

A few inches of latex tube rolled up on itself and sealed hermetically in a little foil wrapper doesn’t seem like much, does it? Unfurled and applied properly, the ultrathin barrier fitted snugly between a person and their partner is barely noticeable. But the humble condom, contraceptive and prophylactic of choice for hundreds of years, may not be so humble after all.

Condoms are the only form of contraceptive that protects against both unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). They work by covering an erect penis and forming a physical, impermeable barrier between a person and their partner.

Fast Fact: Before the modern-day latex and polyurethane condoms were invented, condoms were made out of things like rubber, linen, sheep intestine, tortoise shell, or animal horn (yes, animal horn).

Unlike the birth control pill, which is made up of a combination of hormones that chemically inhibit female fertility, condoms help prevent pregnancy by simply reigning the sperm in. If sperm are blocked (by a condom) from encountering an egg, pregnancy is not going to happen. Life is seldom perfect, however, and slips and breakages do occur. Even when used consistently (that is, every time a person has sex) and correctly, about two per cent of women whose partners use condoms will become pregnant. Still, that means that 98 per cent of women (an overwhelming majority) will not become pregnant.

Condoms help prevent STIs — like HIV/AIDS and gonorrhea — in a similar manner. The thin layer of latex effectively blocks viruses and bacteria residing in a person's genital fluid from making the jump between partners. In fact, consistent (like I said: every time) and proper (like this) condom use can reduce the chance of HIV transmission by 80 to 95 per cent of what it would have been without condom use. Condoms can also protect against STIs spread by skin-to-skin contact, like herpes and human papillomavirus.

Fast Fact: Liquid latex sprayed directly onto the penis might one day offer a perfectly-fitted alternative to today’s condom. However, so-called “spray-on” condoms are still a few years away from appearing in drugstores.

Erecting a latex barrier between partners is one of the most effective and easiest ways to prevent pregnancy and STIs. It may not seem like a lot, but the average thickness of a condom is less than a tenth of a millimetre — and that’s all the not-so-humble condom needs to keep your sex safe.


Flannigan J (2007) Promoting sexual health: practical guidance on male condom use.

Nursing Standard. 21,19, 51-57. Date of acceptance: October 4 2006.

Article first published on March 11, 2010.

Logan Banadyga

I think that viruses are the raddest things around.  Since 2005, I've been pursuing a PhD at the University of Alberta in Edmonton trying to understand how viruses prevent infected cells from killing themselves.  In my spare time, I can be found rowing in the warmer months and curling in the cooler ones.  I also spend a considerable amount of time reading, writing, and talking (mostly, but not always, about Science).

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