Facts About Condom Additives

Hidden ingredients may cause more harm than good

Condoms are made of several different materials, such as lambskin, latex, polyurethane, or other synthetic materials such as AT-10 resin and polyisoprene.

Additional additives can cause unexpected reactions to either one or both partners, and there is often little way of knowing what you are being exposed to even after reading the product label.

A pile of condoms
Suparat Malipoom / EyeEm / Getty Images 

To this end, here are some of the ingredients most commonly found in popular condom brands.

Nonoxynol-9

Nonoxynol-9 is a spermicidal detergent that helps prevent pregnancy. Frequent exposure to nonoxynol-9 can cause inflammation of the cervix, vagina, and rectum.

These types of irritations can actually increase your vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, especially if you don't use condoms consistently. The inflammatory reaction in women is also linked to an increased risk of urinary tract infections.

A number of condom manufacturers, such as Kimono Condoms, have made the point of removing nonoxynol-9 from all of their products. Others, such as the Trojan Armor Series, warn against the use of nonoxynol-9 condoms for anal sex or more than once-daily vaginal sex. But the majority of manufacturers do not specifically warn about the nonoxynol-9 risk.

Parabens

Parabens are a type of preservative used in many personal lubricants and lubricated condoms. This preservative inhibits bacterial growth and helps extend the product shelf life.

While the evidence is far from conclusive, parabens are believed by some to increase the risk of certain types of cancer. This is because parabens can bind to estrogen receptors and interfere with normal hormonal activity. By penetrating intact skin, parabens can potentially accelerate the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers or even affect the quality and quantity of sperm production in men.

Whether the relatively small amount of parabens found in condoms can cause these effects is the subject of ongoing debate.

Glycerin

Glycerin is a sweet-tasting preservative classified as a sugar alcohol. It is commonly used in personal lubricants and flavored condoms to improve taste during oral sex.

The ingredient offers no protective benefit and can even increase STI risk by promoting infections like bacterial vaginosis. The sugar provides nutrients that promote growth of bacteria and/or fungus, while also disrupting the pH balance of environmental flora.

This may increase a woman's risk of getting HIV, and it can also increase the risk of spreading the virus due to viral shedding, a condition in which HIV concentration is higher in tissues that are actively inflamed, reddened, and swollen.

Casein

Many manufacturers add a milk protein called casein to their latex condoms to make them smoother. You might be opposed to using these products if you follow strict ethical vegan principles.

Since there are no international or federal regulations governing vegan certification, only a handful of manufacturers have certified that their condoms are animal-product-free with a governing body such as the Vegan Society.

Among them:

  • Glyde Condoms
  • HANX Condoms
  • EXS Condoms
  • Fair Squared Condoms

Even if a person is non-vegan, there is a risk, albeit slight, of an allergic reaction if you have a milk allergy.

Benzocaine

Benzocaine is a topical anesthetic used in certain condoms to decrease sensitivity and increase comfort during intercourse. Common side effects of benzocaine may include localized inflammation, irritation, and dryness. Because benzocaine is readily absorbed through the skin, it has the potential, albeit rare, of causing dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and breathing difficulty.

Benzocaine is often accompanied by other tissue-stimulating ingredients such as menthol, which can promote vaginal and rectal lubrication but can also cause local itchiness.

A Word From Verywell

Other components that might be present in some condoms include aloe vera, L-arginine, and synthetic chemical flavorings which are not always tested for safety in vaginal or rectal tissues.

Condoms are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the same way that pharmaceutical drugs are, and there is often a vast disparity in how condom products are labeled. In fact, it is not uncommon to find a specialty or novelty condom with no information as to whether it is made of latex, lambskin, or polyurethane.

This places you at risk of an allergic reaction, such as if you have a latex allergy. And it can also entirely undermine the protective benefit of a condom—potentially increasing, rather than decreasing—the risk of STIs.

If you are uncertain about which additives a condom may contain, start by reading the label and avoiding those that offer no information at all. If you are unsure about what an ingredient is (or what a non-specific term like "spermicide" or "pleasure-stimulating" actually means), pick up the phone and call the manufacturer.

The more you know about the condoms you use, the better protected you will be.

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  1. Fichorova RN, Tucker LD, Anderson DJ. The molecular basis of nonoxynol-9-induced vaginal inflammation and its possible relevance to human immunodeficiency virus type 1 transmission. J Infect Dis. 2001;184(4):418-28. doi:10.1086/322047

  2. Stoiber T. What Are Parabens and Why Don't They Belong in Cosmetics. Environmental Working Group. Published April 9, 2019.

  3. Nicole W. A question for women's health: chemicals in feminine hygiene products and personal lubricantsEnviron Health Perspect. 2014;122(3):A70‐A75. doi:10.1289/ehp.122-A70

  4. Wang CC, Mcclelland RS, Reilly M, et al. The effect of treatment of vaginal infections on shedding of human immunodeficiency virus type 1. J Infect Dis. 2001;183(7):1017-22. doi:10.1086/319287

  5. American College of Cardiology. Benzocaine topical. Updated October 20, 2011.

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