When it comes to condoms, it’s a spiel most of us are all too familiar with. Our parents, teachers and the media have preached to us about how important it is to use them to avoid contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and/or falling pregnant. The question is: how would you react if you knew that condoms had an additional health benefit?
There are people who decide against using condoms for personal reasons and that choice is their right. It is understandable why some avoid them when statistics such as those by LiveScience.com report that condoms have a 15% failure rate. However, according to the same website, the condom is still being used by 85% of sexually active couples to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs.
It has been found that condoms keep women healthy. A recent study by the Beijing Friendship Hospital in China set out to determine the connection between non-hormonal contraception methods, such as using a condom or the rhythm method (when couples abstain from sex when pregnancy is most likely to happen based on the woman’s menstrual cycle), and hormonal contraception methods such as the pill and the intrauterine device (IUD) on women’s vaginal reproductive health. This study was conducted in China because of the country’s high percentage of women using contraceptives due to the one-child policy that was adopted by the country in 1979. In the study, there were 164 married and/or sexually active women between the ages of 18 and 45. Of the 164, 72 women used condoms, 57 used IUDs and the remaining 35 used the rhythm method. After dividing the participants into those three categories of contraceptive use, researchers waited until the women were on the 21st or 22nd day of their menstrual cycle and then collected vaginal swabs for testing.
Although a healthy vagina contains a mix of “good” and “bad” bacteria, this study focused on the good bacteria. The bacterium that researchers were mainly focused on was Lactobacillus, described by Rachel Reilly from InsiderOnline.com as “bacteria that dominates the natural flora of the vagina for many women”.
Lactobacillus in the vagina makes the vaginal environment slightly acidic and prevents harmful bacteria from growing in the vagina. The microbes in the good bacteria produce hydrogen peroxide and lactic acid which create what researchers call an “acidic buffer system” that works as a barrier against harmful bacteria that could cause infections. By blocking out harmful bacteria, the vagina can maintain an average pH acidity level of 4.5. The Lactobacillus bacterium is said to help prevent the outburst of bacterial vaginosis, which occurs when there is an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the vagina, resulting in itchiness, abnormal vaginal discharge and a “fishy” odour. According to Megan Gannon, the news editor of LiveScience.com, good bacteria, such as Lactobacilli, have even shown to decrease a woman’s chances of contracting HIV.
In the study, researchers found that the level of Lactobacillus was predominantly higher in the women who used condoms as a form of contraceptive as opposed to those who used IUDs and the rhythm method.
Unprotected sexual activity can throw off the pH balance of the vaginal environment since semen has a pH level of 7 to 8, a number which decreases the acidity level in the vagina. Although the condom itself has not shown to provide good bacteria, it does ensure that a woman’s vagina maintains its required natural acidity level to be healthy.