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What is a condom?

A male condom (rubber) is a sheath of thin, strong material worn over the erect penis during intercourse to catch the ejaculated sperm. Condoms are made of latex, polyurethane or “natural skin”. Condoms are either pre-lubricated or non-lubricated; choosing one or the other is a personal preference.  However, additional lubrication may be added to a non-lubricated condom so that intercourse will be more comfortable. Condoms reduce the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  Female condoms made of polyurethane are also available.

How effective are condoms?

When used correctly and with each sexual act, male condoms reduce risk of pregnancy by about 98%.  Because condoms can break, come off, or are used incorrectly, the effectiveness of condoms may be reduced to about 85%.  When latex condoms are used correctly and consistently, they can reduce the risk of getting sexually transmitted infections like HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomonas.  Condoms are not 100% effective in preventing STIs.  Polyurethane condoms are as effective as latex condoms in preventing pregnancy and STIs and are options for people with latex allergies.  “Natural skin” condoms prevent pregnancy but do not reduce risk for STIs.

How do I talk to my partner about condoms?

It is important to talk to your partner about using condoms before you have sex.  Be honest and direct about your feelings.  Let your partner know that you are concerned about both of you.  It’s easier to have this talk before you are about to have sex.  Most people are relieved to know that their partner is concerned about having safer sex.   

How do I use a condom?

  • Use a new condom for each sex act (vaginal, oral or anal)
  • Check the expiration date on the package and be careful to not tear the condom when opening the package.
  • If the penis is uncircumcised, pull the foreskin back before putting the condom on.  Make sure the condom rim rolls down and the tip points up before putting on the condom.   If it does not roll down, take it off and open a new condom.
  • Put the condom on the erect (hard) penis before there is any contact with the partner’s genitals, anus or mouth.  Be careful to not tear the condom with teeth, fingernails or anything sharp.
  • Leave ½ inch of empty space at the tip and smooth out air bubbles as you roll the condom down all the way to the base of the penis.  Use extra water soluble lubricant on the outside of the condom if needed.
  • After ejaculating and before getting soft, pull out while holding the base/rim of the condom firmly.
  • Take the condom off being careful not to spill any semen.
  • Carefully wash the genitals and hands before another sex act.
  • Check the condom for tears.  If the condom breaks during sex, withdraw immediately.  If pregnancy is a concern, emergency contraception is available without a prescription. 
  • If you are worried about how to use a condom, practice using one before you have sex.

How do I take care of condoms?

Condoms should be stored in a cool, dry place.  Heat can cause the condom to break more easily so don’t carry them in a pocket exposed to body heat.  Make sure the package is sealed when you are ready to use one.  Adequate lubrication makes condom breakage during sex less likely.  If you need extra lubrication, only use water based lubricants like Astroglide, K-Y, or saliva with latex condoms.  Avoid oil based lubricants like massage oils, baby oil, and body lotions as they can weaken the latex.  Some vaginal yeast medications can also weaken the latex.  Spermicides can increase risk of HIV transmission, and are not recommended.  There is no evidence that adding spermicide to a condom further reduces risk of pregnancy.

What are the advantages of condoms?

When used correctly, condoms can reduce the risk for pregnancy and STIs.  They are easily available at drugstores, clinics and discount stores, and they are inexpensive.  They can prolong pleasure for both partners especially for men who have problems with premature ejaculation.   Not worrying about pregnancy or STIs can help both partners relax and make sex more enjoyable.

What are the disadvantages of condoms?

Some people can develop an allergy to latex which can cause itching, burning or irritation.  Switching to a polyurethane condom will solve this problem.  Some men and women complain that condoms dull sensation.  There are many different brands of condoms that come in different sizes and styles.  Finding the right type of condom can help this problem.  Putting on a condom as a part of sex play before intercourse can overcome concerns of interrupting spontaneity.

Common Condom Errors

The results of a study*, conducted with IU male students, found that a large proportion reported a variety of errors and problems in using condoms.  These errors and problems could increase condom failure or decrease the effectiveness of the condom.

What were some of the errors reported?

74% failed to check the condom for visible damage.

61% did not check the expiration date.

60% did not discuss condom use with partner before sex.

43% put a condom on after starting sex and 15% removed it before sex was over.

42% reported they wanted to use condoms but none were available.

40% did not leave a space at the tip.

35% reported slippage or breakage during sex.

30% placed the condom on upside down and flipped it over.

Nearly 14% reported that a condom slipped off during withdrawal.

*SOURCE: Crosby, R.A., Sanders, S.A., Yarber, W.L., Graham, C.A., & Dodge, B. (2002).  Condom use Errors and Problems among college Men.  Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 29, 552-557.