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What you REALLY need to know about condoms and cancer

Nitrosa-what? If you've heard rumors about the health risks of condoms, keep calm and read on.

There’s been some recent back and forth in the world of sexual health about a publication by the Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP) on nitrosamines in latex condoms. The RHTP report notes that the “use of condoms should not be reduced or undermined because of the presence of nitrosamines in some condoms,” yet its findings have been used to justify some scary claims about potential health risks of some condoms. So, what’s the real deal?

Nitrosa-whatsits?

Nitrosamines are chemical compounds that form during the production of latex, in some foods, and in tobacco smoke. In terms of everyday exposure to these compounds, there are detectable levels in balloons, gloves, baby bottle nipples, pacifiers, cosmetics, beer, deli meats—and yes, condoms. We know that being exposed to too much of these compounds over time leads to an increased risk for cancer. But should condom users be worried?

The short answer is no.

Here’s why:

  • The report looked at the amount of nitrosamines released by a condom instead of how much is absorbed by the skin. And they acknowledge there’s a difference. Other research on nitrosamines shows that skin typically absorbs around 1% per hour of exposure, a really small amount. The vagina, anus, mouth, and the glans of the penis are mucous membranes, which may mean they absorb more than regular skin, but we don’t know what difference that makes without more research. It’s possible that even the condoms that released detectable levels of nitrosamines aren’t significant sources of the compounds because such a small amount is absorbed.

  • The RHTP report showed that Durex Extra Sensitive, Lifestyles Skyn, Lifestyles UltralLubePlus, Lifestyles Flavors and Colors, Trojan Bareskin, Sustain, and the FC2 female condom had no detectable nitrosamines in them. RHTP contacted the manufacturers of the condoms with the highest levels of nitrosamines and half reported “that they are aware of the issue and taking steps to monitor and reduce the levels of nitrosamines in their products.” So even those brands may soon be nitrosamine-free.

And we probably don’t need to remind savvy Bedsider readers that condoms protect us from things that are definitely harmful to our health, like chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, HIV, and hepatitis.

Now, if you work in a factory making condoms…

Research has shown that people working in factories and warehouses with lots of latex around do have a higher exposure to nitrosamines, especially when they work there for decades. As with all other chemical exposures in our environment, it’s all a matter of scale. If you’re worried about chemicals in your environment, check out these helpful recommendations about reducing your exposure.

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