Condoms are one of the only methods of contraception that can protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Condoms are made from thin latex (rubber) and are designed to cover the penis in order to stop sperm coming into contact with your sexual partner.
- Male condoms are 98% effective at protecting against pregnancy when used correctly, every time you have sex.
- You can get condoms free from contraception clinics, sexual health clinics and some GP surgeries.
- Oil based products – such as moisturiser, lotion and Vaseline- can damage condoms and make them less effective. Water based lubricant can be used with all condoms.
- Always check your condom packet for the European CE mark or BSI (British standards) kite mark and check the expiry date.
- After sex, check your condom for breaks or holes and that it is still covering the penis. When this occurs you should find out more about emergency contraception and getting an STI test.
How do Condoms work?
Condoms are a barrier method of contraception. A condom covers the penis or a sex toy and acts as a barrier between it and the mouth, vagina, penis or anus.
Condoms protect against pregnancy by stopping the sperm contained in semen coming into contact with the vagina. A condom stops sexual fluids being transferred between partners. They are the only method of contraception that protects against most STIs.
Condoms can be used with other methods of contraception, to protect against both pregnancy and STIs.
How to use a condom
- If you follow the instructions on the pack it will make it less likely that you will have any problems.
- Check the expiry date and make sure there are no rips or tears in the pack.
- Check the condoms have the CE or the BSI kite mark on the pack
- Before opening, feel the rib of the condom inside the packaging. Push this to the side so that when you tear the condom open you don’t tear the condom as well.
- Unroll the condom a bit to check it is the right way around. Check which way to roll it BEFORE it touches the penis
- Pinch the tip of the condom between thumb and forefinger to get rid of any air.
- Make sure the condom is put on the penis when the penis is erect (hard), before it goes near anyone’s mouth, vagina or anus, to help protect against unplanned pregnancy and STIs.
- Use your other hand to roll the condom down to the base of the penis. If the condom won’t roll down you may be holding it the wrong way round. If this happens, it may have sperm on it, so throw away and try again with a new one.
- If you are having anal sex, you should use additional water-based lubricant which you can apply directly to the anus or on the outside of the condom.
- Check the condom is in place during sex.
- After ejaculation, hold the condom on at the base until the penis is withdrawn from your partner’s mouth, vagina or anus, and then take it off, wrap it in tissue and throw it in the bin (not down the toilet)
- Always use a brand new condom if you have any sexual contact again – they can only be used once.
Condoms with spermicide
Some condoms come with spermicide on them. You should avoid using this type, or using spermicide as a lubricant, as it doesn't protect against STIs and may increase your risk of infection.
Who can use condoms?
Most people can safely use condoms, but they may not be the most suitable method of contraception for everyone.
- Some men and women are allergic to latex condoms. If this is a problem, polyurethane or polyisoprene condoms are less likely to cause an allergic reaction.
- Men who have difficulty keeping an erection may not be able to use condoms because the penis must be erect to prevent semen from leaking or the condom slipping off.
Advantages and disadvantages of condoms
Some advantages include:
- When used correctly and consistently, they are a reliable method of preventing pregnancy.
- They help to protect both partners from STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and HIV.
- You only need to use them when you have sex – they do not need advance preparation and are suitable for unplanned sex.
- In most cases, there are no medical side effects from using condoms.
- They are easy to get hold of and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavours.
Some disadvantages include:
- Some couples find that using condoms interrupts sex – to get around this, try to make using a condom part of foreplay.
- Condoms are very strong but may split or tear if not used properly. If this happens to you, practise putting them on so you get used to using them.
- Some people may be allergic to latex, plastic or spermicides, but you can get condoms that are less likely to cause an allergic reaction.
- When using a condom, the man has to pull out after he has ejaculated and before his penis goes soft, holding the condom firmly in place.
Can anything make condoms less effective?
Sperm can sometimes get into the vagina during sex, even when using a condom. This may happen if:
- the penis touches the area around the vagina before a condom is put on
- the condom splits or comes off
- the condom gets damaged by sharp fingernails or jewellery
- you use oil-based lubricants, such as lotion, baby oil or petroleum jelly, with latex or polyisoprene condoms – this damages the condom
- you are using medication for conditions like thrush, such as creams, pessaries or suppositories – this can damage latex and polyisoprene condoms, and stop them working properly
If you think sperm has entered the vagina, you may need emergency contraception. You can use emergency contraception up to five days after unprotected sex (when sperm entered the vagina).
You should also consider having an STI test.