The new polyurethane material has double the strength of rubber, so the condom can be made thinner, thus increasing sensitivity for its wearer, according to the manufacturer, London International Group, which makes Durex condoms.
'One of the major complaints from users is that condoms are not sensitive enough,' Dr Richard Arnold, senior scientist with LIG, told the Annual Chemical Congress of the Royal Society of Chemistry in Liverpool. Other advantages were that the new condoms would not cause allergic reactions and were odourless.
The company is conducting trials in the US. The condoms should go on sale there later this year, with a British launch next year, Dr Arnold said.
The plastic condom is expected to be more expensive than its conventional cousins, at least at first. Dr Arnold said: 'It takes a very hi-tech procedure to produce this condom and there has been a lot of investment in the development technology. The raw material is also very expensive.'
In 1990 alone, estimates suggest, 6,000 million condoms were used worldwide. The vast majority were rubber, although lambskin condoms are still on sale in the US.
The new condom is made from a polyurethane called Duron. Polyurethane is used widely to create both hard plastic materials and softer, more elastic forms.
Dr Arnold said that although it was not difficult to make a condom out of polyurethane, it was difficult to make one soft enough. LIG had spent five years and pounds 13m on development.
Polyurethane is used for the Femidom, made by Chartex International.
However, its use for the male condom is the latest advance in a long history. The earliest report of condom use appears to be by Egyptians in 1350BC. Cave paintings in the Dordogne from AD100 to AD200 show a man and woman having intercourse with the penis seemingly covered. Excavations at Dudley Castle have produced what appear to be condoms used by Cavaliers in the mid-17th century. A fish-skin condom was found in the lavatory shaft of a 13th-century Welsh castle.
According to Gillian Clark, a historian from Liverpool University, the 16th-century anatomist Gabrielle Fallopius wrote of using a linen sheath to protect against disease.
The word condom is loosely associated with a Dr Condom, or Conton, thought to be court physician to Charles II, who was said to be so delighted with the condom he conferred a knighthood on its inventor.
Over the years the main refinement has been in the material used. Linen was probably replaced with animal skins, and in the 19th century the Japanese are said to have used condoms made from thin leather.
The discovery of vulcanisation in 1843 - treating rubber with sulphur and heat to make it more durable - made it possible to mass- produce reliable, cheap condoms. In the 1930s, liquid latex replaced crepe rubber and production was speeded up.Reuse content