Ask the Doctors: Condoms, Nonoxynol-9, and Expiration Dates

Last night, I had sex for the first time with the new person I am dating. I just moved to a new place, and during the move, I’d found an old box of condoms in my underwear drawer. He asked if I had a condom; I took one of those out; we used it. The sex was good, but very very prolonged … finally, I said, “is everything all right?” He said he’d lost feeling in his penis! Anyway, eventually, we realized that the condoms had expired in 2009 and he postulated (being a med student) that the nonoxynol-9 (sp?) in the spermicide was responding weirdly/decaying in some way that made him numb.

So this makes me wonder: what happens when a condom expires? Is it only condoms with spermicide that we really have to worry about? Will they still “work” to prevent STDs and pregnancies when expired, but will the spermicide not work–and will it always make a penis feel numb? Why the numbness? What do we have to worry about when condoms without spermicide expire?

Condoms generally have a five-year lifespan, give or take, though if they have been stored carefully (not in the light, no extremes of heat–a drawer is good), I would not worry over properly using one that was somewhat past its stale date. One condom manufacturer, Glyde, recently started marking their units with the date of production, saying that rubber “is like a fine wine” and gets better with time. I’m sure there’s a point at which that is no longer true (that is, that it’s past its prime) — but I’ve heard elsewhere, too, about this notion that condoms are actually stronger a year or two past manufacture.

In the long run, an expired condom will get weaker and more prone to breakage¦ again, especially if it’s been on a window ledge or other warm spot and not in the underwear drawer. The most important thing is probably how it’s been stored, including the question of whether the packaging is completely intact. After that, you can start doing the math on the stale date.

It is possible that aging nonoxynol-9 would cause more issues of irritation than “fresh” N-9, although I have not heard of this being reported. However, I do know that nonoxynol-9, which is actually a detergent, can cause a numbing sensation in the mouth, and it stands to reason that other mucosal tissue might be similarly affected. If your paramour was uncircumcised, the likelihood that he’d react this way goes up, since an uncut penis still has mucosal tissue at the head and inner foreskin, while a circumcised penis is no longer mucosal except at the urethral opening. While numbness might also result when  guy wears a tight condom for a long stretch, here my money is on the N-9, and it’d be interesting to know whether he has used that kind of condom (or an N-9 lube) before.

One more thing about nonoxynol-9. It works to kill sperm (and, it is assumed, sexually transmitted disease-causing bugs) because of its detergent quality: it breaks down the lipids coating all of these microscopic critters. But this also makes it highly irritating, and N-9 is generally no longer recommended for use as a safer sex product. Good Vibrations stopped carrying it for this purpose in 1994, after I attended an AIDS conference in Amsterdam  where the first research indicating it was a potentially dangerous irritant was presented.

Also: years ago some research was done on condoms that showed that, used correctly, spermicide added only a little prophylactic protection: the majority of a condom’s prevention ability (whether pregnancy or, we assume, STDs) is because it is a physical barrier. So while lube is important to a condom’s correct use (a dry condom is more likely to fail than a lubed one), that lube does not necessarily need to be one with nonoxynol-9. And the amount of N-9 on a condom isn’t necessarily enough to prevent pregnancy, should the condom break; for that, you need the amount found in spermicidal gel. In short, if N-9 is in your life as a pregnancy-prevention strategy, it’d be a good idea to touch base with your gyn to ask about her/his recommendation for “best practice.

Finally, I touched base with my old pal Jo-El Schult, who left Good Vibes for a job at Planned Parenthood a few years ago. Apparently they’re not hot on spermicide over there either. “Our health centers do have spermicidal foam available if a patient requests it,” she said. “Spermicide of any kind is only recommended for folks who have ‘occasional’ vaginal intercourse. There is lots of information online about the FDA even making statements about spermicide NOT being AT ALL effective in preventing STD transmission, in fact it INCREASES your chance of contracting an STD since its harsh chemical properties break down the lining of the vagina/rectum. Condoms pre-lubricated with spermicide do, indeed, have a shorter shelf life.  If someone is using condoms, spermicide is really unnecessary—just use regular ol’ water-based lubricant.”

All righty then, spermicide users! If you want to reconsider your product choices, it sounds like you have a green light from PP as well as from Good Vibes. And your extra-special plus? No more boyfriends who can’t feel their dicks, or numb tongue because you went down on someone forgetting there was N-9 on the condom.

 


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Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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