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What Is a Condom?
A condom is a sheath-style barrier device worn on or inside the genitals during sexual intercourse, reducing the chances of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections or sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STIs or STDs), including herpes, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and human papillomavirus (HPV). There are both male and female condoms available on the market, and each type can reduce skin-to-skin contact and partner-to-partner transmission of fluids like sperm and vaginal fluid.
You can purchase condoms over-the-counter, without a prescription from a healthcare professional, in many locations, from drugstores to supermarkets. Some family planning clinics provide free condoms upon request.
What Are the Different Types of Condoms?
There are two main types of condoms:
- Penile condoms: Also called male condoms, penile condoms are tight-fitting sheaths that should be rolled over the erect penis. These are the most common types of condoms and the most effective for contraception, often referred to as “condoms.” Penile condoms can be made of latex, a latex alternative like polyurethane or polyisoprene for latex allergies, or lambskin. However, lambskin condoms are less effective at preventing STI transmission. Some penile condoms may come pre-lubricated. Some penile condoms are coated in a layer of spermicide known as nonoxynol-9, though there is no scientific proof that this coating increases its effectiveness as a method of birth control.
- Vaginal condoms: Also called female condoms, vaginal condoms are loose-fitting sheaths designed for vaginal or anal insertion. They are less well-known than penile condoms and have a slightly lower effectiveness rate as a form of birth control or reduce STI transmission. They are usually made of polyurethane but can also be made of nitrile or latex, and some may come pre-lubricated.
5 Tips for Using Condoms
Here are some tips to ensure the effective use of condoms during safe sex:
- Check the expiration date. All condoms have a product lifespan ranging from one to five years, depending on the type, packaging condition, and storing methods. Every individual condom wrapper should include an expiration date, after which the condom can be less effective as a contraceptive method or STI barrier.
- Use water- or silicone-based lubricants. Oil-based lubricants—like baby oil, petroleum jelly, vaseline, lotion, coconut oil, or vegetable oil—can break down the material of latex condoms (or a latex alternative like polyurethane condoms) and cause it to break. Instead, use water- or silicone-based lubricants.
- Get the correct size. Condoms come in a variety of sizes and should snugly fit the penis. If the condom is too tight, it can break; too loose, and it can slip off or leak ejaculate during or after intercourse.
- Store properly. Condoms can break down when exposed to heat, friction, or excess moisture, causing them to be less effective. Store condoms in a cool, dry place without large swings in temperature. Avoid storing condoms in your glovebox, where the heat can make them ineffective, or a wallet, where potential friction can result in tearing or breakage.
- Use once. Condoms are for one-time-use. After you remove a condom, you should throw it away rather than putting it back on later in the session or saving it for use at a later date. Pre-used condoms are more liable to break or leak.
How to Use a Condom
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Condoms should be applied once the penis has become erect (usually after foreplay) and before intercourse. Here’s a step-by-step guide to using a penile condom:
- Remove the condom from the wrapper. Carefully tear the wrapper open and remove the condom. It should look like a flat circle, with a rolled-up ring around the edge.
- Place the condom on the head of the erect penis. Bring the rolled-up condom to the tip of the penis (if the penis is uncircumcised, pull back the foreskin first). Identify the inside of the condom by seeing which direction the rolled-up edge will unroll—you want the condom to unroll down the shaft of the penis.
- Roll the condom onto the head of the penis. Roll the condom down around the head of the penis. Sometimes, you or your partner may accidentally place a condom on inside out—for example, the rolled edge is on the inside, and it bunches up when you try to roll it down. If this happens, remove it and use a new condom rather than trying to make the first one work since extra stretching and handling can compromise its effectiveness.
- Remove air from the tip. Press the tip of the condom to remove any air because air bubbles trapped in the condom during intercourse can cause the condom to break.
- Roll the condom down the penis. Use one hand to keep the tip in place and use the other to roll the condom down the shaft to the base of the penis.
- Create extra space at the tip. Condoms need extra space at the head of the penis to collect fluids like semen during intercourse and ejaculation. Many condoms come with a special cavity called a reservoir tip; if your condom doesn’t include this extra space, pinch the tip of your condom to create a loose portion (about a half-inch) before the head of the penis. If a condom is too snug at the head of the penis, semen can run down the condom and leak, increasing the chance of pregnancy or STDs. Ensure that the closed end of the condom tip is free of air bubbles.
- Lubricate. For intercourse, you or your partner can apply lubricant to the outside of the condom. Use only water-based or silicone-based lubes because oil-based lubricants can cause a condom to break.
- Engage in intercourse. When properly worn, condoms are an effective barrier for vaginal sex, anal sex, and oral sex.
- Secure the base. Once you’re finished with intercourse, don’t pull out right away—instead, use a hand to grip the base of the condom, then slowly pull out of your partner. Engaging the base prevents the condom from slipping off or leaking while you pull out.
- Dispose. To properly dispose of the condom, wrap it in a piece of tissue, then place it in a nearby trash receptacle. Condoms should not be washed for reuse because they are too delicate to withstand a thorough cleaning without breaking or stretching, which would render them ineffective for safe sex.