Melanie Cristol’s origin story as a start-up founder began a few years ago — on her honeymoon. Like most newlyweds, she wanted to have sex. There was just one little problem.
“I had an STI, and I didn’t want to pass it on to my then-wife,” Cristol explains to me. At the time, the only safer sex method for cunnilingus was dental dams — a square of latex originally designed for dental work. As anyone who’s used one knows, they can be unwieldy and distracting; if they’re not carefully held in place during oral sex, they can easily slip off or flip over, defeating the entire purpose. That wasn’t the experience Cristol wanted on her honeymoon, she says. “I wanted to feel sexy and confident and to use something that was made with my body, and actual sex, in mind.”
At the time, Cristol was a lawyer with no background in product development or STI prevention. Nonetheless, after three years of building a team, finding a Malaysian factory capable of executing her idea, and honing her product design, she launched Lorals in 2018. The black latex panty is designed to be worn during oral sex (both cunnilingus and anilingus).
The original Lorals didn’t have FDA approval to advertise as a STI-prevention device, but four years later, Cristol has finally achieved her original goal. After an extensive application process and rigorous testing, a version of Lorals (sold as Lorals for Protection) was recently cleared by the FDA as a safer-sex device equivalent to the dental dam.
It’s worth noting here that while oral sex doesn’t come with the same risks as anal or vaginal, it’s not actually “safe sex,” as many assume. It’s true you can’t get anyone pregnant by putting your mouth on someone’s bits, and anilingus and cunnilingus are pretty low risk for HIV transmission (it has happened, however!). But according to the CDC, herpes and syphilis are known to be transmissible through oral sex, and going down on a vulva can put you at risk of contracting HPV (hence Michael Douglas blaming his throat cancer on it). And while more research needs to be done, gonorrhea and chlamydia might be transmitted through oral sex. On top of that, rimming can put you at risk for giardia and parasites — not technically STIs but not particularly fun, either.
Prior to getting FDA clearance, Lorals had to avoid STI-prevention claims; instead, the company came up with a long list of non-prophylactic reasons someone might want to wear a pair of latex panties while their partner goes down on them (reasons that are still advertised for Lorals for Comfort, the non-FDA-cleared version of the product). Kinky play, avoiding beard burn, having mess-free period oral, and reducing the anxiety and distress you or your partner might feel during fully uncovered oral are just some of the possibilities the company has floated.
Some of those reasons generated backlash: Shortly after Lorals’ grand debut, a writer known only as “Lusty Licker, New York, 34” took to the pages of the Establishment to vent about a relatively anodyne review in which a man described enjoying using the product with his wife. After jumping to a few conclusions about “Jeff, 35,” Lusty Licker hits on his main point of frustration: “Instead of helping folks overcome deep-seated insecurities to truly enjoy sex, Lorals is trying to instill those insecurities in those who don’t already have them and reinforce them in those who do.” (Cristol emphatically denies that this has ever been her goal.)
It’s an understandable assumption, though. When a 33-year-old man named Graham raved to me about Lorals, explaining how he’d previously avoided pussy eating because of an aversion to the taste and texture of vulvas, it was hard not to feel a twinge of discomfort. A man who gets excited that his wife’s human body now feels more like a “toy” or a “doll” isn’t really helping the argument that using a latex barrier during oral sex isn’t somehow dehumanizing.
On the flip side, the idea that there’s something shameful about Lorals — that if your partner isn’t nose deep in your bits, then one or both of you thinks your body is disgusting — makes it even harder to request safer oral sex when you want it. Most of us understand that using a condom when we don’t know a partner’s STI status is just common sense. Yet with oral sex, barriers are treated as an overreaction unless someone knows they have an STI (even though many folks with herpes and HPV have no idea). It’s hard enough to battle the myth that oral is 100 percent safe without also being accused of reinforcing body shame.
And as it turns out, STI protection is just one of many reasons people are drawn to Lorals. People with highly sensitive vulvas appreciate the buffer Lorals create between their clitoris and stimulation. Trans women who feel dysphoria around their penises use Lorals to tuck during sex. Mess-free period oral and avoiding beard burn also make the list. “Even the most well-kempt facial hair can still have that wiry texture that may not feel great,” says Lisa Finn, brand manager and sex educator at sex shops Babeland and Good Vibrations, where Lorals has found many fans. Although Lorals’ sales data isn’t public, Cristol claims the company’s revenue has grown seven times over the past year — and points to a TikTok fan base of over 105,000 followers as proof people are excited about the product. (Lorals is currently stocked by sex shops in 12 countries and Urban Outfitters.)
Shortly after I spoke with Graham, I was on the phone with Molly Carey, 30, another Lorals fan. Carey first discovered Lorals through sex educator Rae Kennedy, who posted about the product in an Instagram Story about two years ago. Although the product had yet to be cleared for STI protection, Carey was eager to check it out and bought a four-pack pretty much immediately.
Prior to Lorals, Carey had been happily enjoying oral sex with trusted partners, relying on adherence to her herpes-managing meds and careful monitoring of outbreaks to reduce the risk of transmission. And she admits a part of her worried a barrier might get in the way of her pleasure. But to her surprise, Lorals actually enhanced her pleasure: For once, she could stop worrying — about STIs, about staining sheets, about the state of her pubic hair — and just relax and enjoy the sensation. Unexpectedly, she now prefers oral with Lorals, so much so that she told me she wished she could buy them in bulk.
As a small company making a novel product at a significantly lower volume than most condom manufacturers, Lorals has to deal with expenses most prophylactic producers don’t even think about, and it shows in the price. At $25 for a four-pack, Lorals cost more than $6 each, an eye-popping expense when you consider you can get three condoms for the price of a single Loral. Cristol hopes that customers will consider worry-free oral worth the price. (For comparison, dental dams sometimes retail for even more than that — and that’s assuming you can even find them.)
For now, Cristol is working to expand the Lorals line to reach an even broader audience. She’s got plans for a latex-free option, a version designed to accommodate a penis, a larger size (the current model fits sizes 0 to 20), and, yes, a sheer design that will enable users to see the vulva and anus while staying safe. Above all, she hopes that even just having Lorals on the market will help people open up about all kinds of oral sex.
“This is such a huge milestone for safer sex products,” Carey says. “Dental dams just aren’t as nearly widely used or available as condoms because the user experience just isn’t that great,” which in turn has made it harder to talk about safer oral sex. With one tiny yet revolutionary slip of black latex, Carey tells me, “Lorals made it so much easier for all of us to incorporate and advocate for safer oral-sex practices.”