Public health advocates have long touted the female condom as a way for women to protect themselves against HIV, especially if their partner didn’t want to use a male prophylactic. But while the female condom has been distributed around the world over the last 16 years, it may make a bigger splash if it's cheaper. 

The polyurethane sheath, originally approved in 1993, costs anywhere from $2.80 to $4 a piece – a steep price for women in developing countries to whom the condom was marketed (never mind those in the U.S., who could pick up several of the male version for not much more than that — or for free), Reuters reports. That may change, now that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a next-gen female condom made of synthetic nitrile (a form of rubber) that costs less money for its manufacturer, the Chicago-based Female Health Company, to make. The cost of the new female condom, FC2, could fall to around 60 cents per device for health groups and government agencies that want to buy them, according to the newswire. Male condoms typically cost around 50 cents each.

"Having a less expensive Female Condom increases the probability of women who need it having access to it," Mary Ann Leeper, the company's senior strategic adviser, told Reuters after the FDA approved the FC2 on Wednesday.

The female condom is about 6.5 inches (17 centimeters) long, and basically works like a male condom, covering the cervix and opening with a ring that protects the outside of the vagina.

The United Nations has distributed the original female condom in 142 countries, Reuters notes. But some women have complained that it’s ugly and squeaks; even the product information recommends trying it three times before deciding whether to stick with it as a regular form of contraception. And while advocates have touted it as female-controlled form of sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention, a man still has to be on board, as the female condom’s outer ring is visible.

It could be a year or more before the new female condom is available at U.S. retailers, and its price hasn’t been set, Reuters notes.

Men and women, of course, still gripe about using protection, as we note in this look at the history of the male condom. That’s one reason scientists are trying to develop an effective microbicide – a kind of spermicide that women could apply before sex that would prevent them from catching HIV and other STDs. Then again, as far as contraception (but not disease prevention) goes, there's always the vasectomy — an increasingly popular option for men in these tight economic times, Reuters reports.

Version of female condom package/Anka Grzywacz via Wikimedia Commons