Edison had his lightbulb, Ford had his Model T, and Jan Vinzenz Krause has his spray-on condom. Inspired by the mechanics of a drive-through car wash, the German sexual-health educator designed a custom-fitting male contraceptive using liquid latex and some materials from a hardware store. "I felt a little like MacGyver," he says of building the contraption.
U.S. condom sales have been increasing steadily over the years, according to Packaged Facts, a division of Market Research Group, and they are expected to top $444 million annually by 2010. But usage among teens appears to have leveled off, with 61.5% of sexually active high schoolers surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007 reporting that they had used a condom during their most recent intercourse, down from 62.8% in 2005 and 63% in 2003. Access to condoms is one issue; inclination to use them is another. Which helps explain why companies are constantly looking for ways to improve the standard product — vibrating, warming, climax-delaying, even glow-in-the-dark condoms are all available on drugstore shelves.
Offering a wide variety of condom options is not only a smart business move, it's good for public health. When used properly, condoms don't just act as contraceptives; they also prevent the spread of most sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. That means sexual-health educators, public health officials and condom brand CEOs alike are interested in finding ways to make condoms more appealing, especially to young people.
As a teenager, Krause, now 30, had trouble finding the right size condom, which set him on a quest to aid other similarly befuddled young men. In 2001 he developed an online condom adviser, which provides printable measuring tapes and instructions to help men determine which condom, out of all the brands available in Germany, will fit the best. According to Krause, more than 300,000 people have used the free service.
The site's popularity put Krause in touch with students and sex-ed teachers across Germany, who expressed a common frustration. "They told me, 'Mr. Krause, I don't understand why the industry doesn't develop a condom which fits you perfectly,' " he says.
Hence his idea for a spray-on condom. The prototype, which began testing last year, consists of a hard plastic tube with nozzles that spray liquid latex from all directions, much like the water jets in the tunnel of a car wash. According to Krause, there are numerous advantages to his spray-on condom. "The condom fits 100% perfectly, so the safety is much higher than a standard condom's, and it feels more natural."
But there are some stumbling blocks. The men who tested the spray-on condom had a few hesitations, Krause says. Some were "a little bit afraid to use the tube" and would only try it on their fingers. Others worried that the mechanism, which hisses as it sprays, might ruin the mood.
But the most serious problem with the design — which is what has kept the product off the market thus far — is that the latex takes too long to dry. Liquid latex currently takes two to three minutes to vulcanize, making it impractical. "For people to buy it," Krause says, "it needs to be ready in five to 10 seconds."
That has kept the spray-on condom on hold indefinitely until a faster-drying latex comes along. Meanwhile, Krause is tackling the size problem by preparing to launch a line of condoms in six sizes, instead of the usual one or two. They should be available in Europe starting in September and in the U.S. possibly as early as 2010.
"Having condoms in different sizes we think is a good and smart idea," says David Johnson, group product manager of Trojan Brand Condoms. Trojan's parent company, Church and Dwight, makes nearly 8 out of 10 condoms sold in the U.S. But different-size condoms introduce their own problems: namely, men aren't very eager to buy a small size. Trojan's Magnum line, whose condoms are 15% bigger than regular ones, accounts for 13% of the U.S. market. But when the company introduced a smaller condom several years ago, it had to discontinue it.
Krause says men are reluctant to go to a drugstore cashier with a box of small-size condoms — for obvious reasons. His solution: he plans to sell his new line of different-size condoms online. "Men on the Web," he says, "they are very honest."