Condoms (male and female)
Condoms are a form of barrier contraception. They prevent pregnancy by stopping sperm from reaching an egg.
Condoms can also help to protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, being passed from one sexual partner to another. They are used for penetrative sex (vagina or anus) and oral sex to protect against STIs.
Condoms are made from very thin latex rubber or a very thin plastic, either polyisoprene or polyurethane. Each pack should display either the British BSI Kitemark or the European CE symbol as proof of quality, and clearly state the expiry date of the condoms. Out of date condoms should not be used.
Both male and female condoms are available in the UK and are suitable for most people. The male condom fits over a man's erect penis. The female condom is put into the vagina and loosely lines it. It is up to you and your partner which type of condom you use.
There are many different varieties and brand names of the male condom. At the moment there is only one brand of female condom available in the UK, called Femidom.
How effective are condoms?
If used correctly, male condoms are 98% effective in preventing pregnancy. Female condoms are thought to be around 95% effective. Condoms also reduce the risk of STIs being passed between partners.
Who can use condoms?
Most people can safely use condoms. However, there are some situations where they may not be the most suitable method of contraception:
- Some men and women are sensitive to the chemicals in male latex condoms. If this is a problem, polyurethane condoms have a lower risk of allergic reaction.
- Men who have difficulty keeping an erection may not be able to use male condoms, as the penis must be erect to prevent semen leaking from the condom or the condom slipping off.
- Female condoms may not be suitable contraception for women who do not feel comfortable touching their genital area.
- An allergen is a substance that reacts with the body's immune system and causes an allergic reaction.
How to use a condom
Condoms are a barrier method of contraception. They stop sperm from reaching an egg by creating a physical barrier between the two, preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Condoms are the only form of contraception to offer protection against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If used correctly during vaginal, anal and oral sex they can help to protect against STIs.
The penis should not make contact with the vagina before a condom has been put on. This is because semen can come out of the penis before a man has fully ejaculated (come). If this happens, or if semen leaks into the vagina while using a male or female condom, seek advice about emergency contraception from either your GP or a sexual health clinic. Also, consider having an STI test.
It is best to use another method of contraception as well as a condom, to protect against unintended pregnancy if the condom splits or comes off.
Using male condoms
The male condom fits over a man's erect penis and should be put on before the penis comes into contact with his partner's vagina, anus or mouth. To use a male condom:
- Take the condom out of the packet, taking care not to tear the condom. Do not open the packet with your teeth.
- Hold the teat at the end of the condom between your finger and thumb to make sure it goes on the right way round and that there is no air trapped inside.
- Still holding the teat, place the condom over the tip of the erect penis.
- Gently roll the condom down to the base of the penis.
- If the condom will not unroll, you are probably holding it the wrong way round. If this happens throw the condom away, as it may have sperm on it, and start with a new condom.
- After sex, withdraw the penis while it is still erect. As you do this hold the condom at the base of the penis to make sure it does not come off.
- Remove the condom from the penis, being careful not to spill any semen, wrap it in tissue and put it in the bin. Do not flush it down the toilet.
- Make sure the man's penis does not touch the genital area again and, if you have sex again, use a new condom.
Putting on a condom doesn't need to be an interruption to sex. Many people see it as an enjoyable part of their foreplay.
Using female condoms
The female condom is made of polyurethane and is worn inside the vagina to stop sperm getting to the womb. It needs to be put in the vagina before there is any contact between the vagina and penis. It can be put in up to eight hours before sex.
- Take the female condom out of the packet, taking care not to tear the condom. Do not open the packet with your teeth.
- Squeeze the smaller ring at the closed end of the condom with your finger and thumb.
- Using the finger and thumb push the condom as far up the vagina as possible. Make sure the large ring at the open end of the female condom is covering the area around the vaginal opening.
- The outer ring of the condom should be outside the vagina at all times during sex. If the outer ring gets pushed inside the vagina, stop and put it back in the right place.
- Make sure the penis enters the female condom, not between the condom and the side of the vagina.
- After sex, slightly twist and pull the end of the condom to remove it, taking care not to spill any sperm onto the vagina. Wrap the condom in tissue and put it in a bin. Do not flush it down the toilet.
If you have sex more than once always use a new condom, never re-use condoms. Never use two condoms together and always check the expiry date.
Things to consider
- When used correctly and consistently, condoms are a reliable method of preventing pregnancy.
- They help protect both partners from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including 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. Some people may be allergic to latex rubber, plastic or spermicides, although this is rare. You can get condoms that have a lower risk of allergic reaction.
- Male condoms are easy to get and come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and flavours to suit everyone.
- Female condoms (Femidom) can be inserted up to eight hours before sex. They allow women an equal share of the responsibility, with their partner, as to what contraception to use before having sex.
- Some couples find that using condoms interrupts sex. To get round this you can try making condom use part of foreplay.
- Condoms are very strong but may split or tear if not used properly.
- Some people may be allergic to latex rubber, plastic or spermicides, but you can get condoms that have a lower risk of allergic reaction.
- When using a male condom, the man has to pull out after he has ejaculated and before the penis goes soft, holding the condom firmly in place.
- When using a female condom you need to make sure the man's penis enters the condom and not between the condom and the vagina, and that the open end of the condom stays outside of the vagina.
- Female condoms (Femidom) are not as widely available as male condoms and are more expensive to buy.
Can anything make condoms less effective?
Sperm can sometimes get into the vagina during sex even when wearing a condom. This may happen if:
- the penis touches the area around the vagina before a condom is put on,
- the condom splits,
- the male condom slips off,
- the female condom gets pushed too far into the vagina,
- the man's penis enters the vagina outside the female condom by mistake,
- the condom gets damaged by sharp fingernails or jewellery,
- you use oil-based lubricants, such as baby oil or petroleum jelly, with latex condoms, that damage the condom, or,
- you are using medication for conditions like thrush, such as creams, pessaries or suppositories, that can damage latex condoms and prevent them from working properly.
As well as using a condom, you can take other forms of contraception, such as the contraceptive pill, for extra protection against pregnancy. However other forms of contraception will not protect you against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) so you will still be at risk of STIs if the condom breaks.
Spermicide and Lubricants
Some male condoms are lubricated with spermicide, a chemical that kills sperm. These condoms are slowly being phased out as research has found that a spermicide called Nonoxinol 9 does not protect against STIs such as chlamydia and HIV and may even increase the risk of infection.
It is best to avoid using spermicide lubricated condoms, or spermicide as an additional lubricant.
Condoms come ready lubricated to make them easier to use but you may also like to use additional lubricant. This is particularly advised for anal sex to reduce the chance of the condom splitting.
Any kind of lubricant can be used with male or female polyurethane condoms. If you are using male latex condoms you should never use oil-based lubricants such as body oil, petroleum jelly or creams, as they can damage the latex and make the condom more likely to split.
If you are using medication on your genital area, for example a cream or pessary to treat thrush, these may also have an effect on latex condoms. Check the instructions or ask your doctor if the treatment will affect latex condoms.
Where to get them
Everyone, male and female, can get condoms for free, even if you are under 16. They are available from the following places in your local area:
- family planning clinics,
- sexual health and GUM (Genito-urinary medicine) clinics,
- some GPs,
- Brook advisory centres (for under 25s only), and
- gay pubs and clubs.
You can also buy male and female condoms from:
- pharmacies or drug stores,
- petrol stations,
- vending machines in public toilets,
- mail-order catalogues, and
If you buy condoms online, make sure you buy them from a pharmacist or other legitimate retailer.
Always choose condoms that carry the European CE mark or British BSI Kitemark as a sign of quality assurance.
For information on condoms and all sexual health services, call Sexual Health Direct, run by fpa, on 0845 122 8690.