It's hard to beat condoms as an all-around defense against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. They're cheap, generally reliable, and easy to carry around. But they could be better. If they were easier to put on ("don" is the correct word) and offered better sensation, more people might use them, and we might prevent more disease and unplanned children.
Since launching its first call for new condom concepts, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has received hundreds of ideas from around the world. Last November, it awarded $100,000 grants to eight good ideas, and now it's giving money to 11 more projects. We picked out a few good ones below.
If the first round of awards was all about the penis, the second is more female-friendly. Three of the 11 concepts are new takes on the "femidom." These include an "air infused" concept from HealthRock, in Massachusetts, that comes with its own air pump. It inflates in the vagina and produces a better fit than current products, according to the company. It's also less noisy during sex, apparently.
Another idea comes from a team at Indiana University. It's designed to be more "attentive to vaginal anatomy" and easier to insert, according to Debby Herbenick, who leads the research. "Female condoms, generally speaking, are still in early stages of innovation. There's a lot of room for people to be creative and to work on designs, methods of insertion, and sensations," she says in an email. The condom has textural "cues" at the front end, making application easier in the dark.
Meanwhile, QX System, in Milpitas, California, is working on a "Sliding Tampon Female Condom," which is as it sounds—a condom made to be applied like a tampon. Using a familiar method is "likely to significantly increase condom adoption for the purpose of family planning and health benefits," the company says.
Several of the concepts aim to improve sensitivity. UbIQ World, in San Francisco, uses a material that "mimics human skin" and is more textured than standard latex. Regenex Pharmaceuticals, in China, is working on a thinner latex that still retains strength. A team at the University of Wollongong, in Australia, is using gelatin-like hydrogels that naturally trap water, provide more lubrication, and cause fewer allergic reactions.
Easier application is a goal of a project from Ultimate Medical Products, in New York. The "Zeus Ultra-Sensitive Instant-On" is a device for donning in under a second and using only one hand. "The device increases condom use, speed, accuracy and is mistake-proof," says a press release.
You've heard of condoms flavored with strawberry, apple, and other tastes, just for fun. Texas A&M University's flavonoid antioxidant-infused prophylactics are better than that. The natural plant-based "stimulants increase sexual pleasure," according to lead-researcher Mahua Choudhury.
Finally, the Gates Foundation funded California-based Origami Healthcare Products to trial its folded silicone condoms for anal sex. "Latex condoms have never been FDA-approved for anal sex, a leading means of HIV transmission," the Gates Foundation points out. The "internal silicone condom supports vaginal and anal intercourse with improved pleasure for both partners and could become a consumer-driven option to increase condom compliance and reduce incidents of HIV globally."