The Hard Facts on Condoms

Condoms prevent pregnancies and STDs. They create a barrier that keeps semen and other body fluids out of the vagina, rectum, or the mouth.

There are condoms for men and for women -- but don't use both at the same time. One can stick to the other and pull it out of place or tear it.

What Is a Male Condom?

It's a fitted, thin plastic cover that a man wears on his penis during sex. There are a lot of different types.

Latex, plastic, or lambskin. Most people use condoms made of latex. If you’re sensitive or allergic to that material, you can use ones made of other types of plastic: polyurethane or polyisoprene. Plastic condoms can protect you from STDs, such as HIV, herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, during any kind of sex -- vaginal, oral, and anal. “Natural” or “lambskin” condoms are made of material that comes from lamb intestines. They prevent pregnancy, but like human skin, they’re porous. That means they don’t protect you from STDs.

Lubrication, or lube, is a thin coating of liquid on the condom. It can prevent pain and irritation during sex, and it can help keep the condom from breaking. If you buy one that’s not already pre-coated, you’ll probably want to add some lube to make sex more comfortable. Make sure you use a water-based product that’s meant for sex. Oil-based lubricants like petroleum jelly can damage the condom and keep it from working.

Spermicide is a substance that kills sperm, and some condoms come pre-coated with it. When you use both together, you can lower the risk of pregnancy, but the amount of spermicide that comes with a condom is probably not enough to make a difference. If you want the extra protection, consider getting a separate sperm-killing product. Look for one that has octoxynol-9. Another common spermicide, nonoxynol-9, can irritate the genitals, which may increase the risk of HIV.

Textured condoms, including ribbed and studded ones, are intended to boost the pleasure for you or your partner. But how it makes you feel could be different from what someone else enjoys. If a condom keeps you or your partner from enjoying sex, try textured ones to see if they feel better. You can also make putting on the condom part of foreplay.

You might also find glow-in-the-dark or other novelty condoms, too. But be careful: These kinds are typically not FDA-approved and are not proven to prevent pregnancies or STDs. Make sure the package clearly states that the product guards against both.


Do They Work?

How well a condom works depends a lot on if you use it the right way. It's possible for a woman to get pregnant even if her partner uses one. In a year, 2 out of every 100 women whose partners always use condoms correctly will get pregnant. That number rises to 18 out of every 100 women when their partners don’t use the condom correctly every time.

Condoms also greatly lower the risk that one person will pass an STD to the other. The exact risk varies by the type of disease. For example, condoms are almost 100% effective at protecting against HIV. But HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease, can infect areas that a condom does not cover, such as the scrotum. They lower the risk of HPV infection, but they don’t get rid of it.

So How Do You Use a Condom?

  • Make sure you don’t tear the condom when you open the package.
  • Throw it out if it’s brittle, stiff, sticky, or expired.
  • Put it on after the penis is erect and before it comes into contact with any part of your partner.
  • Keep it on the whole time, from start to finish.
  • Use a new one every time. That means for every erection.
  • If the man wearing the condom is uncircumcised, pull the foreskin back before you put it on.
  • If the condom doesn’t have a reservoir tip, pinch the end to leave about a half inch of space to collect the semen after ejaculation.
  • As you hold onto the tip (if there’s not a reservoir), use the other hand to roll the condom all the way down to the base of the penis.
  • If you feel it break or tear during sex, stop immediately, pull out, and put on a new condom.
  • After ejaculation and before the penis loses its erection, carefully pull out, making sure the condom stays on.
  • When you remove it, make sure the semen doesn’t spill out.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nivin Todd, MD on August 19, 2015



Teens Health: “Condoms.”

Columbia University: “Five kinds of condoms: A guide for consumers.”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Condoms and sexually transmitted diseases.”

Virginia Tech: “Condoms and spermicides.”

World Health Organization: “Nonoxynol-9 ineffective in preventing HIV infection.”

Columbia University: “Do textured condoms heighten sexual pleasure?”

Planned Parenthood: “Condom.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Genital HPV infection - fact sheet.

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