Color-Changing Condoms Help Prevent STI Transmission—and Let You Know If You Have One

Every day, 1 million people contract a sexually transmitted infection.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 24, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Asking new partners about their sexual past is often an uncomfortable conversation to have. Mustering up the courage to ask, “So, have you been tested?” is hard enough, but if the answer resembles something like an “all clear,” both participants are counting on each other to be truthful and knowledgeable about their bodies.

A smart condom could take some of the guesswork out of sexual encounters. Designed by teenagers at a U.K. school hoping to make a practical device for at-home testing, the condom—called the S.T.EYE—includes a layer embedded with molecules that identify different strains of bacteria and change color when they detect bacteria or viruses that cause common sexually transmitted infections.

The different colors indicate different STIs. A green hue signifies chlamydia, while yellow stands for herpes, blue for syphilis, and purple for the human papillomavirus.

“We wanted to create something that makes detecting harmful STIs safer than ever before, so that people can take immediate action in the privacy of their own homes without the invasive procedures at the doctor’s,” teen designer Daanyaal Ali told the Daily Mail.

Of course, the condoms shouldn’t replace pre-sex talk with a partner or a doctor’s appointment but instead offer an additional layer of awareness, as STIs often don’t manifest in blood work immediately after they’re contracted.

Ali and his fellow inventors, Musaz Nawaz and Chirag Shah, won the TeenTech award in the health category for their colorful contraceptive. It’s an award that typically goes to items that can be further developed or bought by another company. But they’re still at the conceptual stage; if the project moves forward, the product needs more research and human trials before it can make it to drugstore shelves. Further testing would also help identify the condoms’ accuracy in detecting infections.

So, Why Should You Care? Should this model become widely available, it could change how STIs are tracked and treated all over the world. While putting on a condom and finding out you have an STI sounds like an awkward position to put yourself or your partner in, the cold, hard truth is that STIs are common in both wealthy and developing countries.

More than 1 million people around the world acquire an STI every day, according to the World Health Organization. One in two sexually active Americans will contract an STI by age 25, and more than half will contract one at some point in their lifetime, according to the American Sexual Health Organization. And just because you’ve got one doesn’t mean you’re aware of it. The majority of people with STIs are unaware of their status. Infections such as chlamydia and HPV don’t present symptoms that prompt a doctor’s visit. While one in five people live with genital herpes, 90 percent of people with the virus don’t know they have it.

HPV, chlamydia, and syphilis are all treatable, but if left undiscovered, they can lead to infertility, increased risk of acquiring HIV, and, in the case of syphilis, neurological problems if passed from mother to baby.

While blood and gynecological tests are readily available in Europe and in the U.S., not only are these screenings expensive for those living in poverty in developing countries, but a lack of health centers makes them an impractical option. An estimated 93 million people in Africa and 26 million people in the Middle East have a treatable STI. Rapid test results from using such a color-coded condom would allow sexually active adults to become aware of their status and take precautions or medications to treat the infection.