“Thickness” or “Thinness” of Condoms Could Differ More Than 4 Times Manufacturers are Urged to Improve Ambiguous Product Claims and Labelling

15 October 2020
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安全套的「厚」「薄」可相距逾4倍 产品包装宣传和标示含糊不清促厂商改善

Proper use of condoms is not only for contraception but can also prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. In a latest test conducted by the Consumer Council, the 30 condom products manufactured by 9 brands had all performed satisfactorily in their overall physical capabilities. All models passed the leakage, bursting volume and bursting pressure tests. In recent years, many brands promoted the “thinness” of their products heavily, but the test findings showed that their thickness could differ as high as by 4 times. For models with the claim of “Ultrathin” (超薄), they differed by more than one-fold in their thickness. The Council also observed that about one-third of the models highlighted numbers such as “0.01”, “0.02”, “0.03”, etc on the package or labels to attract consumers, yet some of them neither stated the unit of the numbers nor the meaning of these numbers clearly.  Given the numbers presented could easily make consumers to associate with the thickness of the products, the Council reminded consumers be cautious on the marketing messages on the product package. The Council also urged suppliers to state clearly the unit used in presenting the product thickness on the package, using millimetre as unit, and rounded to 3 decimal places, so that consumers can make proper comparisons. In addition, to reduce health risk to consumers, the suppliers should also make reference to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s technical report and strive to avoid using accelerators that could cause the formation of the probably carcinogenic N-nitrosamines in the production process.

The test covered 30 models of condoms from 9 brands. Among them 22 were made of latex; 6 of synthetic material polyurethane (PU); and 2 of polyisoprene (PI). The average price of a condom ranged from approximately $3.5 to $22, representing a fivefold difference. Test items were designed with reference to relevant ISO standards and WHO Guidelines. They included water leakage, bursting volume and pressure, package integrity of individual containers, thickness, and N-nitrosamine migration etc. The test had also checked the Chinese and English product labels and user’s guides. 

Many models used “thinness” as their promotional features. With reference to the ISO standard methods, the thickness of 13 samples from each model was measured at 3 specific points from the close tip to the open end, then derived the overall average from the measurements. Produced by different materials, the models could differ by more than 4 times in their thinnest and thickness. PU condom models were relatively thinner with average thickness ranging from 0.019mm to 0.030mm, while PI condoms were thicker with average thickness of 0.068mm. For the 22 latex condom models, their thickness recorded a wide variation, ranging from 0.039mm to 0.093mm.

The test also found that out of all models from the same brand, the price of the thinnest one was the highest. 17 (57%) of models had descriptions used on the packaging associated with “thin” such as “ultrathin”, “extra thin”, “superthin” and “equivalent to the thinness of soap bubble”. The average thickness of 8 models labelled “Ultrathin” (超薄) was between 0.025mm and 0.057mm, with a difference close to 1.3 times. As a reality, there is no standard set for the thickness of condoms. Different manufacturers have their own definitions. Therefore, consumers could hardly determine the actual thickness of a condom solely by reading the promotional messages, and the most practical advice to consumers is to buy in small quantity and try out the comfortability.

Most of the models had clearly labelled the width of the condoms but was relatively vague in the presentation of thickness. Consumers should beware that although about 40% of the models had some numbers printed on their packages, they are not necessarily related to the condoms’ thickness. For example, 8 models (27%) were labelled with “0.01”, “001”, “0.02”, but not all of them stated the unit or the meaning of the numbers clearly. Another example, “001” was printed on the box of 2 models but their actual thickness was 0.054mm and 0.055mm respectively. The supplier later confirmed that there was no pronouncement whatsoever that 001 was associated with thickness. There are also rooms for improvement on product labelling for certain models, such as missing of Chinese manual, inadequate contents; no advice on storage methods; absence of lot number on the package of individual containers and expiry date, etc. The Council urged manufacturers to strengthen the product labels and the marketing messages on the packages.

The pollutant N-nitrosamine exists in many products and has been found in food, beer, cigarette smoke, cosmetics, etc. Some N-nitrosamines have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Group 2A as agents “probably carcinogenic to humans” and in Group 2B as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. In the rubber production process, some chemicals may be added as accelerator. Through the reaction of these chemicals with nitrogen oxides in the air, N-nitrosamines are formed.

Migration of N-Nitrosamines was detected in 5 models. The model with the highest N-nitrosamine level had 73.3ng/gm of N-Nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), 854.5ng/gm of N-Nitrosodiethylamine (NDEA) and 235.5ng/gm of N-Nitrosodibutylamine (NDBA). Although the levels detected are not high, and according to WHO’s technical report, the risk of causing tumours for using condoms is very low, the Council hopes that manufacturers would adopt the recommendations of the WHO‘s technical report in the reduction of the formation of N-Nitrosamines, such as using safer accelerators while at the same time soaking and rinsing the products thoroughly so as to reduce the level of N-Nitrosamines and to minimise risk.

In testing the physical properties, 315 samples were tested for each model. One sample from each of 2 models of latex condom and 2 models of PU condom were found to leak. They were still within the limit of 2 leaking condoms set with reference to the ISO standards. 5 models of latex condoms recorded to have 2 to 8 samples burst at relatively lower volume or pressure. They again were within the limit of 10 samples with reference to the ISO standards. Their overall performance was satisfactory.

Consumers should take note of the following when buying and using condoms:

  • Apart from inspecting the condition of the packaging and the expiry date, consumers should be mindful on the display location of the product in the shop to avoid buying degraded products due to exposure to high temperature or light. After purchase, condoms should be stored at indoor shaded and cool place, and not mixed with oily materials or solvents;
  • Do not use sharp tools such as scissors to open the condoms. When putting it on, do not let nails or rings damage it. Don’t use oily lubricants at the same time;
  • Read the ingredients listed on the label carefully. People who are allergic to anaesthetics benzocaine should be very careful as some products have this ingredient;
  • After use, condom should be carefully wrapped in tissue paper or plastic bag before disposal in rubbish bin.

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