What Are Condoms?
A condom is a thin, fitted tube worn over the penis during sex (male condoms) or inserted into the vagina before sex (female condoms). They create a barrier that keeps semen and other body fluids out of the vagina, rectum, or mouth.
You might hear a condom called a rubber or the barrier method. But, no matter what you call them, condoms have the same purpose. They prevent STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and pregnancy. And they’re a good birth control option because they're cheap, easy to get, and you don't have to plan ahead to use them.
How Effective Are Condoms?
How well a condom works depends a lot on whether you use it the right way.
When used properly, male condoms are about 98% effective at preventing pregnancy. This means that in one 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 whose partners don’t use the condom correctly every time.
Female condoms are about 95% effective when used properly. They work only 79% of the time if you don’t use them right.
Condoms also greatly lower the chances that one person will pass an STD to the other, particularly if you wear one every time you have sex. Not having sex , however, is the only way to be 100% sure you won't get a disease.
Still, condoms are very effective at preventing STDs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, and HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). 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 male condom doesn’t cover, like the scrotum. Condoms lower the risk of HPV infection, but they don’t get rid of it.
What Types of Condoms Are Available?
There are many types of male condoms, including:
- 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 plastic: polyurethane or polyisoprene. Latex and plastic condoms can protect you from STDs 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 have tiny openings. So they don’t protect you from STDs.
- Lubricated. 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 doesn’t already have lube on it, 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-coated. This is a chemical, called nonoxynol-9, that kills sperm. Some condoms are sold coated with it. This may lower the risk of pregnancy, but the amount of spermicide that comes with a condom probably isn’t enough to make a difference. If you want extra protection, add a separate sperm-killing product. Nonoxynol-9 can irritate your genitals, which could make you more likely to get HIV.
- Textured condoms. These include ribbed and studded types. They’re meant 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. But be careful: These kinds typically aren’t FDA-approved and may not prevent pregnancies or STDs. Make sure the package clearly states that the product guards against both.
There’s only one type of female condom approved by the FDA for use in the U.S. It’s made of nitrile, a type of latex-free, human-made rubber. It comes pre-lubricated.
How Do I Use Condoms?
If you are sexually active, keep a few condoms with you so you'll always have one when you need it. Put on a new condom every single time you have sex. Use a condom when you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Put on a different condom for each type of sex you have.
Keep the condom on the whole time you're having sex. Don't take it off at any point. If it breaks, stop and replace it right away. Don’t use male and female condoms at the same time. One can stick to the other and pull it out of place or tear it.
To use male condoms:
- Make sure the condom is in good condition and not torn or expired (check the date on the package).
- Carefully open the wrapper and take out the condom.
- Place it on the tip of your fully erect penis. The rolled side should be facing out. If you’re uncircumcised, pull back the foreskin first.
- Leave a half-inch of space at the tip where the semen can collect when you ejaculate. This helps prevent the condom from breaking. Some condoms have reservoir tips that leave the space for you.
- Pinch the air out of the tip of the condom.
- Unroll it all the way down your penis.
- Use enough lubrication so the condom doesn't break. You can use a water-based lubricant, such as K-Y Jelly or Astroglide. Don't use an oil-based lubricant such as Vaseline, body lotion, baby oil, or massage oil because it can weaken the latex and cause the condom to break.
- When sex is finished, but before your penis gets soft, grab the rim of the condom to hold it in place while you pull out. Gently pull out from your partner. Slide the condom off your penis, making sure you don't spill any semen.
- Wrap the condom in a tissue and throw it away in a place where other people won't touch it.
To use female condoms:
- Carefully open the wrapper and take out the condom.
- Get in a comfortable position, such as standing with one foot on a chair or squatting.
- Squeeze the sides of the inner ring at the closed end of the condom.
- Insert the condom into your vagina like you would a tampon.
- Use water-based lubricant to help prevent slipping and tearing.
- Push the condom in as far as it will go, until it rests against your cervix. The outer ring will hang outside your body slightly.
- Use your hand to guide your partner’s penis into the condom. If you feel the penis slipping between the condom and your vagina, stop sex.
- When sex is finished, twist the outer ring and pull it out. Throw it in the trash. Do not flush the condom or reuse it.
How Much Do Condoms Cost?
Male condoms cost up to $1 each, depending on how many you buy and where you get them. Female condoms cost about $2 each. You can buy them at your local drug store or supermarket. And some health centers, family planning clinics, and schools give male and female condoms away for free.
Tips for Proper Male Condom Use
You can put a male condom on at any time before or during sex.
- 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 your penis is erect and before it touches any part of your partner.
- Keep it on the entire time, from start to finish.
- Use a new one every time. That means for every erection.
- If the condom doesn’t have a reservoir tip, pinch the end to leave about a half inch of space to collect the semen when you ejaculate.
- If you feel it break or tear during sex, stop right away, pull out, and put on a new condom.
- When you remove it, make sure the semen doesn’t spill out.
Tips for Proper Female Condom Use
You should insert the condom before you plan to have sex.
- Put lubricant on the outside of the closed end to help it go in easier.
- Make sure the condom doesn’t get twisted when you put it in.
- Stop if you feel your partner’s penis slipping between the condom and your body, if the outer ring gets pushed into your body, or if you feel the condom slip out of place.
Answers to Your Condom Questions
Should I keep a condom in my wallet?
No. You should be prepared, but condoms kept in warm places, like a wallet or glove compartment, can weaken from the heat. An outside coat pocket or at home in a cool, dry place are better places to keep condoms.
Do condoms have expiration dates?
Yes. Most condoms are good for 3 to 5 years. Check for the date printed on the box or condom wrapper.
When it comes to condoms for the penis, does one size fit all?
Not always. A standard size should be large enough to accommodate most penises. But some may need a larger size. It’s just as important to make sure the condom isn’t too large. There are "snug" sizes also available.