Most of us have felt extremely “awkward” and “judged”, while buying a condom from a pharmacist. Although this method of contraception is one of the safest and healthiest, its adoption is abysmally low in the country. According to India’s first-ever Condomology report, its use stands at a mere 5.6 percent. The market, too, has been dominated by a few big names, and is typically male-dominated. This is exactly what 27-year-old Aruna Chawla, the youngest woman to launch a condom brand — Salad — wanted to change. And alongside, change the narrative around sexual health awareness.
After studying law, she transitioned to consumer psychology to understand how people think and make decisions. It is around then that she gathered certain eye-opening insights, and made it her mission to make sexual health and wellness more accessible and impactful.
In a freewheeling conversation with HealthShots, Aruna shares all about her journey, the roadblocks she faced, and how she aims to change the sexual health narrative with her condom brand.
While doing her research as a consumer psychologist, Aruna realized that there existed the potential for a brand that focused on health, instead of pleasure.
For her, it was always about combining growth, impact, and autonomy for women, and that’s WHEN she came across the idea for her non-toxic, vegan condom brand.
The condom industry is heavily regulated by the Department of Pharmaceuticals, and there are huge barriers to entry (plus monopoly is a challenge too). Also, brands are not obligated to disclose ingredients, which means that we really do not know what’s going inside our most intimate parts. This is another aspect she wanted to address.
“It’s very easy for us to say that using condoms leads to allergies, but we don’t know what’s causing it. During product development research, I found that there was an opportunity to launch a condom in the market that’s sourced from 100 percent sustainable rainforests in the country. We decided to go for ultra thins. We have also not added any artificial flavours or fragrances to the product, which means there is no weird rubbery smell, or taste. This means you do not face any allergies or rashes,” she says.
Although condoms are cheap and easily accessible, they do not cause side-effects on the human body. But the use of certain ingredients can trigger allergic reactions.
“Generally, casein is an animal byproduct that is used to line the rubber. We do not use that because technology has advanced to such a level that we can choose to use only plant-based products. At the same time, the security and stability of the product are not compromised,” she adds.
Right before they launched, Aruna removed all her images from social media, to prevent them from being used. Apart from this, she also faced challenges in terms of policy, and more.
“There is an obscenity clause that exists, so content that is even related to periods is flagged. Instagram continues to shadowban posts, even of sex educators. You can’t even do paid advertising. Plus, with condoms, it is a monopolized industry, and there is a price ceiling and barriers to entry. I remember when I would visit factories, most manufacturers were unwilling to speak to me. Finally, we found someone who understood our vision,” she adds.
During her research, she spoke to over 1,000 people in tier 1 and tier 2 cities to understand their experiences while growing up. Social inaccessibility turned out to be the biggest challenge, along with ignorance and expenses associated with it.
“The online world has made it easier for us to buy condoms, but it takes time to get them delivered. Even today, 48 percent of the country goes without any form of contraception. There’s a lot that needs to change,” she shares.
Aruna shares that 52 percent of her user-base today are women. With growing financial independence, there’s an opportunity for them to be decision-makers, and have more autonomy over their bodies.
“Even if ours is a niche product, it is accessible to all genders. I feel people are taking more precautions today, when it comes to their intimate health and wellness. There is also growing consciousness if people want children or not, and all these factors put together are helping,” she says.
Most of us were introduced to sex in our teens through pornography. In India, ‘sex talk’ rarely happens, more so due to the lack of awareness and education. Even in this day and age, the subject is considered taboo and spoken about in hushed tones. First-time sex is often something that makes us super nervous because of the lack of awareness. With her brand, Aruna aims to change the narrative.
“While we did our research, we found out that 80 percent of the teens were introduced to porn by their male partners or friends. These women were traumatized, also because it did not set the right expectations around sex. Women have to go through a period of unlearning the trauma that is propagated by traditional porn that caters to the male gaze. Sex is not just the physical aspect,” she adds.
Aruna is also doing her CSR bit by committing 15 percent of her brand’s profits to enable sex education in schools and colleges in India. Besides, her energy is focussed on building a new product to help users learn the language of their bodies anytime, anywhere
“The more we understand our body, we better we can show up in our relationships,” says Aruna.
Aruna shares that a piece of advice by one of her earlier bosses – a mentor today – has stayed with her. “No matter what you do, whether entrepreneurship or a job, ensure financial independence so that you can make your decisions,” she says.
While impostor syndrome is rather common, she considers herself the “dumbest person in a room, so that she learns from others who are smarter than her.” This is her strategy to keep a growth mindset!