The female condom can be washed and reused several times and still meet structural standards set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to a study conducted in South Africa.1 When a sample of women washed, dried and relubricated female condoms up to seven times, the devices continued to meet FDA requirements with respect to the amount of pressure they could withstand and the strength of their seams. Five holes were detected in the 295 condoms used, but these were not associated with the number of times the condom was used.
A sample of 50 women--predominantly commercial sex workers and clients at an inner-city sexually transmitted disease clinic--were enrolled in the study and instructed in how to clean a female condom for reuse. (The procedure consisted of rinsing the condom; washing it for 60 seconds with liquid detergent; rinsing it; patting it dry with clean tissues or towels, or air-drying; and relubricating it with vegetable oil just before reusing.) Participants were given a condom and asked to use, wash and reuse it, and return it to the study site for laboratory testing. If the condom was found to be structurally sound, the women were asked to repeat the cycle with a new condom, reusing it twice; the cycle was repeated until the women washed a single condom seven times (i.e., used it a total of eight times).
Laboratory analyses of the used condoms tested the devices' water leakage, the maximum pressure they could withstand before bursting and the tensile strength of the seams. Results were compared both with FDA standards for new condoms and with results for a sample of 20 unused condoms from the same production batch from which the study condoms were drawn.
Three-quarters of the women used liquid detergent to wash the condoms, as they had been instructed to do; the rest used bar soap or, in one instance, soap powder. Three in five women air-dried the condoms, and 99% relubricated the devices before reuse, primarily with baby oil, sunflower oil or petroleum jelly.
Five holes were detected in the 295 condoms used, for a breakage rate of 2%. In three cases, the women had noticed the holes and told clinic staff about them when they returned the condoms for testing; the other two holes were found during the water leakage test. The holes were detected after various numbers of reuses, with no clear trend related to the number of times a condom was washed. Moreover, the investigators note that four of the holes were in the part of the condom that lies outside the vagina and that is twisted during removal of the device.
Regardless of the number of times a condom was washed, test values for burst and seam strength were above minimum FDA standards. Comparisons of reused and new condoms showed no differences in results for seam strength and minor variations for pressure.
The researchers comment that "although occasional holes result from the repeated handling of the condom, these are not sufficiently common to make the practice [of washing and reusing female condoms] unacceptable." Their overall conclusion is that "while it is preferable to use a new female condom or male condom, a reused female condom may be an acceptable next choice in situations where this is not possible."--D. Hollander
1. Beksinska ME et al., Structural integrity of the female condom after multiple uses, washing, drying, and re- lubrication, Contraception, 2001, 63(1):33-36.