Inside the Making of Condoms
There are more than five billion condoms sold worldwide each year. With this kind of mass production one would surmise that the manufacturers have automated processes that take the hard labor and guesswork out of equation. Each little corner of the world has its favorite brand and material. The best known and respected brands are very transparent in their manufacturing process. The lesser known brands and smaller sellers do not promote their manufacturing techniques. The big guys are proud of what they have achieved through the years.
While over five billion have been sold to consumers, this does not include the numbers that are given to the underprivileged in poor nations or any other charity endeavor. Plus it does not include the ones that are donated to hand out to teens in their sex education classes or those that are donated to Planned Parenthood organizations.
Ansell, makers of the popular Lifestyle Condoms receive dozens of emails each year with eager men wanting to answer the call to be condom testers. Alas, this is indeed one of those jobs where technology has replaced a human in a job. All major manufacturers use machines for many areas of testing so that government standards can be consistently met without subjective input.
Ansel says in the U.S. the average age of a condom buyer is 18 to 24 and 70% of condoms are purchased by men. Big name brand makers have all sorts of information about their typical buyers and their likes and dislikes. This is how they devise innovative new condoms. Smart companies listen to their customers and then take action.
Ansel has several divisions around the globe. From their internal marketing they have learned that European like their pleasures a bit spicier with all the dots, studs and ribs. Brazilians lean toward menthol and peppermint tastes. They say that the Chinese are the largest user of their brand which is not surprising because of the child limit in the country. The Brits come in second while the U.S. ranks a lowly sixth. Trojan may be the reason for this number.
Black Market Sales hurt Consumers
Back in 2011 the Slate carried an article by journalist Brian Palmer that explained a great deal about the manufacturing of condoms and the trials and tribulations. “Asia is the center of the global condom network, both legitimate and illegitimate. Thailand leads world output at 3 billion condoms per year, exporting 12 percent of their capacity to the United States. (The U.S. no longer produces condoms on a large scale. The last major factory, located in Alabama, shut its doors after USAID stopped buying condoms for international AIDS prevention from the company in 2009.) The top five producing countries are all in Asia, with a combined annual total of 11.6 billion. Even Iran is getting into the act, with a state-funded factory producing 45 million condoms per year.”
Counterfeit condoms have become a serious problem in recent years, particularly in China. In 2009, Chinese police busted a factory that had produced more than 2 million cheap, possibly contaminated, vegetable-oil-lubricated condoms and sold them in name-brand wrappers for a total of $11,300. Some of the Chinese counterfeits showed up in the U.S. selling under the Trojan name. One importer of phony Trojans managed to sell the fakes to unsuspecting wholesalers.
It's not surprising that a black market for condoms has sprung up—the profit margin is pretty substantial. While it costs only 2 or 3 cents to make a condom, they sell for an average of $1.12 per unit in the United States, with some expensive designer brands going for more than $4.
A condom is not something you want to skimp on, though. Upstanding manufacturers put their products through a battery of quality tests. They hang up test condoms and fill them with water and stretch pieces of latex until they break. They conduct a "burst" test, inflating the rubber like balloon to see how much pressure it can handle. Manufacturers test every condom for pinholes by trying to pass an electrical current through the rubber. They even toss a few samples in the oven for a week to accelerate the aging process, and run the tests again. Some of the counterfeit condoms couldn't even pass the leak test right out of the package.
How are Brand Name Condoms made?
Durex is one of the most popular condom brands and their popularity lives and dies with the quality of their condoms. They are very proud of their manufacturing process and are quite transparent. Most individuals do not know the extent of the technology of making a single condom from start to finish. This means securing the raw material and ending with the necessary government testing and certifications.
They give you a step by step process. This is not so you can go out and make your own condoms, but so you can see all the detail and planning that goes into production.
1.‘Prevulcanize’ the rubber. This means adding all the chemicals and fillers that turn the rubber into the necessary latex material. The ingredients are intended to make the material stronger, more reliable and to eliminate a lot of the components that may cause allergies or sensitivities.
2.Latex is poured into huge, temperature controlled storage vats. A continuous line of glass forms pass over the vats where they are dipped into the material. Obviously, the glass forms are specially made to convert the latex to the size and shape that is desired. Once the glass forms are coated, they are cooled and then go back for a second dip in the pool.
3.After the second dipping, the glass forms go through an oven to ‘vulcanize’ the material where the chemical process is completed and the latex will have the required strength and elasticity.
- 4.Now the condoms are removed from the formers, washed to remove any water-soluble residues, and powdered using pharmacologically safe materials.
5.Condoms have to mature and this takes about 48 hours. Durex has its own Electronic Testing Machine and each condom passes through ensuring it meets all standards. Once they graduate, they go on to the packaging stage.
6.Packaging is placing the individual condom into its foil. You may be surprised to learn that it is in packaging stage where flavors and lubes are added. On a common sense level this means that the flavored condom you are using is the same base condom that is not flavored. This is the same base condom that carries normal lube and extra lube.
7.Now the square foils are heat sealed, stamped with a batch number and given an expiration date. A sample of the packaged foil is then pulled for a second test for leakage and other defects.
8.The Durex website tells you about all the tests they perform – and why. For the educated condom buyer, it could be why this is such a popular brand:
- Electronic testing — Every condom is checked for pinholes, defects and imperfections
- Water leak testing — A sample of over 2,000,000 condoms per month are filled with water and suspended for a minute to check for leaks
- Air inflation test — A sample of about 500,000 condoms per month are given an air inflation test to check for burst-strength and elasticity (International latex standard: 18 liters. Durex minimum latex standard: 22 liters. Typically Durex condoms will expand to 40 liters)
- If the condoms fail on any of the tests, the entire batch — which can be up to 432,000 condoms — is discarded.
- It's these attentions to detail and stringent standards that have led to Durex being frequently consulted by National and International regulatory bodies, health ministries, hospitals, scientists and academics.
Trojan is Transparent as Well
Trojan manufactures around one million condoms per day. Their process is almost identical to that of Durex. However they say that once the condom has been double dipped it is washed in a solution that makes it smoother and then filled with lube before it is packaged.
Condoms are tested either by being filled with air or water, or by getting stretched. Even after they’re packaged, some batches are randomly selected for extra testing. This appears to be a quality control that has been employed by all the large condom manufacturers.
Another thing we learn is that when the latex and chemicals are mixed into the large vats for vulcanization the process can take seven days. It is not an immediate action. The storage time also allows air which may have been trapped in the mixture during compounding to escape.
We also learn about the dipping machine and how ingenious the inventor was. “The dipping machine is a long, hooded machine approximately 100 feet (30.5 m) in length. Thick tempered glass rods move along a closed belt between two circular gears. The belt drags the rods, which are called mandrels, through a series of dips into the latex compound. The mandrels rotate to spread the latex evenly. Several coats are required to build the condom to its required thickness. Between each dip, the latex is hot air dried.”
The efficiency of movement and energy is maximized. After the final dipping and drying, the condoms automatically roll off the mandrels. A machine shapes and trims the ring of latex at the base of each condom. Next, the condoms are put in a tumbling machine, where they are coated with talc or another similar powder to prevent the rubber from sticking to themselves.
After a curing period of several days, the condoms are sampled by batch and tested for leaks and strength. The first is the inflation test, in which the condom is filled with air until it bursts. Condoms are required to stretch beyond 1.5 cubic feet, about the size of a watermelon, before bursting. This test is considered most important because the elasticity of the condom keeps it from tearing during sex. It is almost unbelievable that if a condom could stretch to cover a watermelon, it definitely would not break if rolled on a larger penis.
In the water-leakage test, the condom is filled with 10 ounces (300 ml) of water and inspected for pin-sized holes by rolling it along blotter paper.
Condoms are also tested electronically. This involves mounting each condom on a charged stainless steel mandrel. The mandrel is passed over by a soft, conductive brush. If pin holes are present, a circuit will be established with the mandrel, and the machine will automatically reject the condom.
In the U.S, the FDA reviews U.S. company records and spot checks batches for cracking, molding, drying, or sticking latex. The organization also tests every lot of imported condoms. Upon sampling, lots will not pass inspection if they reveal greater than 4% failure with respect to the above dimensions, 2.5% failure with respect to tensile strength and elongation, and 0.4% failure due to leakage.
Each brand has its own standards which make them popular among their core customers. Kimono begins at the beginning with the source of their rubber. They tell us “Natural latex comes from the rubber tree (Hevea Brasiliensis). Special cells in the tree, called laticifers, produce latex, a milky substance that drips from scores made on the tree. Rubber trees are cut at night when humidity is high, so the flow lasts longer before the cut dries. One rubber tree yields 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of latex each night before the cut stops dripping. The latex is collected in the early morning.” So it could mean that the Kimono production process takes from sunup to sundown.
Kimono is very strict about the latex it uses. Technicians test and analyze the latex for quality and purity before it can be accepted into production. No condom manufacturer will release their recipe for the additives that go into the vat to make the latex have the properties they want. Kimono is no different. If everyone had the formula for the secret sauce, imitations could be easily made.
Even when the condoms are complete they are not yet ready for shipping. Because safety is essential for every Kimono condom user, before Kimono condoms are shipped, they must undergo a series of strength and quality tests. Kimono condoms must not only meet all US and International safety standards, but exceed them as well according to the company.
Additional non-regulatory tests that are performed are a condom air burst test, condom water burst test, condom tensile test, condom aging test, and condom water leakage test.
You can see that major manufacturers take their products seriously and the testing even more so. Once a brand has a streak of problems with their products it is very difficult to earn consumer trust again. The major condom brands have been proactive and not only looking to their Research and Development teams for new offerings, but depending on their Q&A departments to ensure there are no surprises in the quality of products being shipped to consumers.