What Is a Polyurethane Condom?

A latex-free option for safer sex

Polyurethane condoms are a type of external condom made from a type of plastic. Polyurethane condoms are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Polyurethane condoms are an alternative to the more common latex condom. While people with latex allergies often turn to them for protection, polyurethane condoms have properties that can benefit other people as well. Even so, they carry certain risks and may not be the best choice for everyone.

A close-up of a man passing a polyurethane condom to a woman
Estradaanton / Getty Images

This article explains how polyurethane condoms differ from other types of condoms. It also explores the pros and cons of polyurethane condoms in terms of safety, comfort, and sexual pleasure.

Uses

Polyurethane is a type of plastic that is strong and highly resistant to water, grease, and tears. Condoms made from this material are one of several types approved by the FDA. The others are latex condoms, natural lambskin condoms, and polyisoprene condoms (made from a different type of plastic).

All condoms are classified as Class II medical devices by the FDA. To obtain approval, the condoms must pass certain tests, including an airburst test, a water leak test, and a tensile test (which measures the stretchability of a condom).

This does not mean that all condoms receive the same FDA approval. Only polyurethane, latex, and polyisoprene condoms are approved for the prevention of pregnancy and STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV.

Because lambskin condoms are porous and allow the passage of certain microorganisms, they are not approved for the prevention of STDs.

Benefits

Polyurethane has certain properties that make it ideal for external condoms. Among them:

  • Polyurethane is stronger than latex.
  • Polyurethane is more durable in storage and less affected by prolonged heat exposure.
  • Polyurethane is resistant to oil-based lubricants that can damage latex condoms.
  • Polyurethane has no odor, making it preferable to people who dislike the smell of latex or lambskin.
  • Polyurethane condoms are thinner than latex and polyisoprene condoms which may enhance sensitivity.
  • Polyurethane is thinner and transmits heat better than other external condoms, which may increase sensitivity.
  • Polyurethane condoms are looser and more comfortable than other external condoms. They may be ideal for people who dislike the tight fit of latex, lambskin, or polyisoprene condoms.
  • Unlike latex condoms that can only be unrolled in one direction, polyurethane condoms can be unrolled in either direction.

Polyurethane condoms are arguably of greatest benefit to people with latex allergies. Given that 5% of the population has a latex allergy, having a non-latex alternative is important.

Risks

As strong and effective as polyurethane condoms are, they have certain drawbacks. Among them:

  • Polyurethane condoms are generally more expensive than latex, lambskin, or polyisoprene condoms.
  • Because the fit of polyurethane condoms is looser, they are far more likely to slip off during sex than other types.
  • Because polyurethane condoms are less stretchy, they are five times more likely to tear or break compared to latex condoms.
  • The loose fit can also cause friction that promotes breakage. Extra lubrication may help reduce the risk of this.
  • Most studies have shown that polyurethane condoms are less effective in preventing pregnancy than latex condoms.
  • While studies are conflicting, some suggest that polyurethane condoms may be slightly less effective in preventing STDs due to their looser fit.
Pros
  • Stronger than latex

  • Can be used with oil-based lubricants

  • Has a looser, more comfortable fit

  • No odor

  • Less vulnerable to heat exposure

  • Increased sensitivity due to a thinner texture

  • Can be unrolled in either direction

Cons
  • Less stretchy and more likely to break

  • May require extra lubrication

  • More likely to slip off during sex

  • More costly

  • Less effective in preventing pregnancy

  • May be slightly less effective in preventing STDs

Acceptability

The choice of condoms is largely a personal one. Some people prefer the tight fit of a latex or lambskin condom. Others may prefer the thicker, form-fitting feel of polyisoprene versus the looser, thinner one of polyurethane.

Studies exploring the acceptability of different condoms—that is, whether people will use them or not—have largely been conflicted in their findings.

An early, small study conducted by California Family Health Council in 2020 found no difference in the preference or acceptability of latex condoms versus polyurethane or other non-latex condoms.

Other studies suggest that people with penises prefer polyurethane condoms because they are less likely to be "too tight" when compared to latex condoms.

A 1999 study in Family Planning Perspective found the opposite, with most participants preferring latex condoms partly because of lower failure rates.

Currently, latex condoms account for 80% of the U.S. condom market, while plastic condoms (mainly polyurethane) represent 15%.

Summary

Polyurethane condoms, made of a durable form of plastic, are a good alternative to latex condoms. They are stronger than latex and ideal for people with latex allergies.

Some people with penises prefer polyurethane condoms because they are thinner and have a looser, more comfortable fit than other condoms. And unlike latex options, polyurethane condoms are not degraded by oil-based lubricants.

Even so, polyurethane condoms are less stretchy and five times more likely to break compared to latex. Their loose fit may also cause them to slip off during sex.

Research has suggested polyurethane condoms may be less effective than latex in preventing pregnancy and possibly STDs.

A Word From Verywell

Even though latex condoms may be more effective than polyurethane in preventing pregnancy, the overall efficacy of condoms is similar to other barrier birth control methods irrespective of the condom type.

What is most important is that you use condoms correctly and consistently. This includes knowing how to size a condom, leaving room at the tip for ejaculatory fluids, and discarding expired condoms.

If you don't know how to use a condom, don't be embarrassed to ask your healthcare provider.

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8 Sources
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