Lifestyle

Everything you need to know about condoms

Because safer sex is really sexy.

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When it comes to practicing safer sex, condoms are a no-brainer. They’re cheap, easy to find, and provide a barrier of protection that can help prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV/AIDS.

You can use them during virtually any sex act, too, not just vaginal or anal sex. Enjoying a little foreplay with your partner? A flavored condom could make oral sex more enjoyable. Using sex toys together? The right condom could make cleaning up less of a hassle.

Condoms also represent freedom and respect, says Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., a sexuality and relationship health educator. “It’s funny, because people don’t tend to think about them in that way. But they give people the freedom to share their body in lots of different ways with another person and still [reduce the risk of STIs] and pregnancy, which nothing else that we currently have on the market can do.”

When used correctly, the benefits of condoms are vast, yet shockingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate there are approximately 20 million new STI infections annually in the U.S. According to the most recent data from the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned. The issue is, people don’t always see condoms as a sensual thing that’ll make sex better, says sexologist Tanya Bass, Ph.D., and that’s a big problem. “We make condoms so prevention-focused, we take the sexy right out of using them.”

As part of a sexual health toolkit, condoms matter, especially if you’re dating or practicing non-monogamy and don’t want to fluid-bond with a partner. But they’re not just a product you “have to” use—they can also be fun. Here’s everything you need to know about how to use condoms, from the different types to finding the correct size, and more.

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Which condom type is right for you?

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Condoms should be an essential part of your sexual health toolkit, whether you're single or coupled up.

“We tend to think of condoms as the condoms that were around 30, 50 years ago, not the ones that are actually available today,” says Levkoff. With so many sizes, shapes, and textures to choose from now, picking the right condom can seem overwhelming. So, how do you find the perfect one? For starters, you figure out which type suits your lifestyle. Your first decision: Choosing a material.

Are all condoms latex?

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Latex is ubiquitous with condoms in the U.S., accounting for about 80% of the market.

If you’ve ever grabbed a handful of free condoms before, chances are they were latex, as they account for about 80% of the condoms made in the U.S. As the most common type available, they can be 99.9% effective against pregnancy when used correctly and help reduce the risk of STIs. “For the most part, latex condoms have been the tried-and-true condom of choice,” says Bass. You can get them pre-lubricated or non-lubricated, and the variations go from there. For example, ultra-thin latex condoms may increase sensitivity for penis-owners and give them more sensation during penetration. However, be sure to avoid oil-based lubes when you’re using latex, as it could break down the condom and reduce its overall effectiveness.

Be sure to avoid oil-based lubes when you’re using latex, as it could break down the condom and reduce its overall effectiveness.

What are non-latex condoms made of?

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In addition to using birth control, non-latex condoms can help those with a latex sensitivity have safer sex.

While latex condoms are incredibly popular, the material can pose problems for some people. Although an allergic reaction is uncommon—it’s thought to only impact about 4.3% of the general population—signs of a latex allergy can include itching, rash, and/or hives. In severe cases, it could also lead to wheezing, coughing, and/or anaphylactic shock.

Latex allergies are uncommon and thought to only impact about 4.3% of the general population. But for those who suffer reactions, there are alternatives.

Fortunately, non-latex condoms made from polyisoprene or polyurethane can be an excellent alternative. Made from plastic, polyurethane condoms tend to feel very thin (even thinner than ultra-thin latex), while synthetic-rubber polyisoprene is ultra-stretchy and may have more flexibility than ordinary latex. “They are typically able to conform to the genitals for a more natural feeling,” says Bass. If you have a severe latex allergy, you may want to avoid polyisoprene as it’s still technically within the latex family, but be sure to consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions.

What are lambskin condoms?

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Those who prefer lambskin condoms tend to enjoy their distinctive feel and fragrance.

Speaking of substitutes for latex, lambskin (also known as natural membrane) condoms are another option. Made from lamb intestines, they had their first recorded use back in Ancient Greece (sort of—the condom was worn internally, so it could be classified as an internal condom as well) and can be 98% effective against pregnancy with perfect use. However, Levkoff doesn’t recommend them because they contain microscopic pores, which means they don’t offer any protection against HIV or other STIs. “Other condoms do not have any holes in them whatsoever,” adds Levkoff. “It’s really important that people keep that in mind if they’re considering lambskin/natural membrane condoms.”

Lambskin condoms can be effective against unplanned pregnancy but contain microscopic pores, which means they don’t offer any protection against HIV or other STIs.

Lambskin condoms aren’t as widespread as latex, either—they account for just 5% of the overall condom production in the U.S. and are significantly more expensive than most other condoms (a box of 10 costs a little over $30, for reference). Those who prefer them tend to enjoy the scent—they give off a somewhat floral, perfume-like fragrance—and claim they transmit body heat more effectively than latex, allowing the wearer to feel more sensation. However, given the increased STI risks, you may want to avoid them.

What are female condoms?

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Internal condoms (a.k.a. female condoms) aren't widely available anymore but are a great alternative to external condoms.

Internal condoms (once referred to as female condoms) are designed to be worn inside a vagina or rectum and are about as effective as their external counterparts at reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission. But ask most sexually active adults if they’ve ever tried this type of condom, and chances are, they haven’t.

For people who have difficulty maintaining an erection with external condoms, internal condoms can be a terrific alternative because they’re not as restrictive.

Part of the reason is that these nitrile-and-polyurethane condoms, which were first introduced in 1993, are not widely available anymore, says Bass. (Only one brand, FC2 still makes them.) The condoms look different, with a ring at both ends to help hold it in place, but also have a more complicated insertion process than external condoms, and it differs depending on if you’re using one for vaginal or anal sex. That said, for people who have difficulty maintaining an erection with external condoms, they can be a terrific alternative because they’re not as restrictive. Further, for wearers who are using it for vaginal sex, the outer ring—which covers the vulva but can also reach the clitoris, depending on anatomy—may provide added stimulation during intercourse. Another perk of using internal condoms is that you can use any type of lube with them (yes, even oil!).

What are novelty condoms?

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Novelty condoms can add some silly fun to your next bedroom romp.

Most novelty condoms—including flavored condoms and glow-in-the-dark varieties—are latex, so they technically aren’t a separate “type” of condom. However, they feel different to use and may introduce some much-needed joie de vivre into sex. Experts urge caution though, as most novelty condoms are not regulated the way standard latex or non-latex are, and particular varieties—like temperature-enhancing condoms—may cause irritation for some people. Additionally, Levkoff notes that flavored condoms contain glucose, which may lead to yeast infections for vulva owners if used during penetrative sex. Still, novelty condoms can be a playful substitute for ordinary prophylactics. Flavored condoms in particular are perfect for oral sex and are easy to cut up if you want to create your own dental dam.

Are spermicidal condoms safe?

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Carrying a condom with you at all times can be a good way to stay prepared, no matter what.

Spermicides—most commonly containing the chemical nonoxynol-9 as the active ingredient—kill sperm on contact and come in a variety of forms, including creams, films, foams, and as a lubricant coated on latex condoms.

In theory, spermicidal condoms may sound great because they offer an extra layer of protection. Not so fast though, says Levkoff. While she recalls that they were considered important to use during the early days of the HIV epidemic, sex educators have since backtracked on this. “If you’re having sex multiple times a day, [spermicide] could be cause irritation vaginally or anally, because of the harshness of the chemical.”

Common side effects of spermicide use include itching, burning, and/or a rash. It may also lead to urinary tract infections. Although spermicide can be used as a standalone birth control method, experts advise against it. When used alone, it’s one of the least effective methods for pregnancy prevention, with a 28% failure rate, according to the CDC. Most importantly, spermicide alone is ineffective against STIs and studies have shown it may increase the risk of HIV transmission, likely because of the irritation it causes to sensitive genital tissue, which in turn could make your body more susceptible to the virus.

What size condom is right for you?

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Condoms aren't one size fits all—you just have to figure out which size works best for your body.

The average penis measures about 5.1 inches erect. As most standard condoms are stretchy and designed to fit sizes up to 7.5 inches erect, the majority of wearers don’t need to go to the trouble of measuring themselves unless they want to.

That’s not to say that some condoms aren’t more comfortable than others. “Condoms are not a one size fits all,” says Bass. It’s all about preference, and while they’re meant to feel tight, if a wearer thinks that a condom is extremely constricting, it may be time to reassess things.

Understanding condom sizes can help. Snug-fit condoms, which are typically latex, are ideal for those penises up to 4.7 inches erect. For those with penises over 7.5 inches erect, large condoms are likely preferable. For a more tailored fit, One Condoms offers customizable sizing, which Bass recommends for anyone looking for a condom that works precisely for their anatomy.

Wearing the wrong condom size (too big or too small) can increase the risk of breakage or slippage.

No matter what, it’s crucial to be sure about one’s measurements, as wearing the wrong condom size (too big or too small) can increase the risk of breakage or slippage. When in doubt, roll it out. To properly use a condom, start by taking it out of its wrapper and unfurling it over an erect penis. (Make sure you have it right-side out, because if you realize it’s wrong after you’ve touched it to the tip of the penis, you may now have preejaculate on the condom, which would render its protective efficacy moot.) For ones with a reservoir tip—a nipple-like curvature at the end of a condom that helps catch semen and reduce breakage—pinch it as you unroll, as this will reduce the chances of air bubbles and allow more room for fluid post-orgasm.

While not an issue of fit, some wearers might feel discomfort due to a condom’s reservoir tip, which can feel too binding during penetrative sex, even when used properly. Not all condoms have this—some, like the baseball-bat shaped Trojan Ecstasy, may be a better choice for wearers who dislike reservoir tips because the rounded end feels less restrictive.

Under no circumstances should you use two condoms at once, as the practice of “double bagging” is more likely to produce friction and lead to tearing.

According to Levkoff, a condom shouldn’t be loose at the base though, so if it is, you may want to switch brands. Also, under no circumstances should you use two condoms at once, as the practice of “double bagging” is more likely to produce friction and lead to tearing. And of course, never reuse condoms—when you’re done, you should dispose of it immediately. The longer you keep a condom on post-coitus, the more uncomfortable it’ll feel during the refractory period (i.e., when a penis returns to its flaccid state and its biologically impossible to regain an erection).

Do condoms expire?

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In a pinch, experts say it's fine to use an expired condom, but there are important things to keep in mind.

Condoms don’t last forever—in fact, because they’re considered medical devices, most have an expiration date of about three to five years from the time of manufacture. This is because they’re also made from materials (i.e., polyisoprene) that degrade over time.

If you can avoid it, don’t use an expired condom. However, if your choices are limited, you’re better off wrapping it up. “An expired condom is absolutely better to use than nothing at all,” says Levkoff. Bass agrees—if your aim is risk reduction, it’s the safer way to go. “We teach people that it’s all-or-nothing and don’t give them options,” she adds. “But you still have a level of protection that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Unsure how to check? An expiration date should be clearly visible on the wrapper. If it’s been kept in a dry, cool place and it’s within the same year of expiration, Levkoff says it should still be fine to use if necessary. Aside from checking for an expiration date, squeeze the wrapper to see if there’s an air bubble inside—this ensures the wrapper itself is still sealed properly. Finally, take a closer look at the condom itself. If it feels stiff, has visible tears, or gives off a pungent odor, these could all be signs that the condom is on the decline, too. Trust your instincts, say the experts.

Should you use condoms on sex toys?

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Condoms can help you maintain your toys and make it easier to use them with multiple partners, too.

While it may seem unnecessary, using condoms on dildos and other toys can be a good way to practice safer sex and minimize the spread of germs, especially if you’re in an open relationship or engaging in group sex. “If you’re using toys with a partner or potentially more than one partner, it’s absolutely a good idea to use condoms,” says Levkoff.

Condoms keep fluids from bonding to the toy itself and could make switching partners or positions—i.e., going from anal to oral play—more hygienic. But remember to swap them out, as using a condom-clad toy with multiple partners at once defeats the purpose of using one in the first place. Even if you’re using toys solo, condoms can come in handy, as it could mean easier cleanups.

Levkoff points out that the shape of the toy can determine how easy it is to use a condom, though. A toy that’s phallic-shaped like a dildo is easy; a Magic Wand vibrator, on the other hand, could pose challenges. But also, don’t overthink it. “There’s no reason that we should be struggling in the heat of the moment to figure out which condom is the right one for a toy,” she adds. Plan in advance where you can, but above all, stay playful—it’s as important to your sex life as safety is.

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