These things are basically a godsend when you’re sexually active but not in a relationship. They can protect against pregnancy AND STIs. In fact, they’re the only form of protection that does both. Here's the lowdown on condoms, including what they are, how to put them on and how effective they are.

A young man is on his phone. He is researching condoms.

What’s a condom?

If you’ve been googling ‘what’s a condom’ for a while and still haven’t gotten a straightforward answer- you’ve come to the right place. 

The most common type of condom is a latex sheath that fits onto the penis when erect. It catches semen on ejaculation. This is what’s known as a barrier method of protection. Basically, it prevents sperm from contacting your partner’s genitals and also stops body fluids from mixing. This is why they’re so great. Not only do they act as a method of birth control, but they also prevent transmission of most STIs.

How effective are condoms?

If you’ve seen Friends you probably already know this answer (cue Ross angrily calling the condom company). But, for the uninitiated, when latex condoms are used on the penis they are 98% effective against pregnancy and STDs. Pretty decent – right? 

Condoms can also be used to practice safe oral and anal sex. In these cases, its main purpose is to prevent the transfer of sexually transmitted infections.

What does a condom do?

Condoms do a few useful things. As well as creating a barrier against fluid transmission, condoms can also kill sperm if they are coated with spermicide. Condoms are often also lubricated, which usually makes sex more comfortable. Since they have so many different uses, there are loads of different types on the market. For example, spermicide/lubricant free condoms are readily available, as are flavoured, coloured or textured varieties.

Just as a side-note: Condoms made from polyurethane offer the same level of protection, and provide an effective alternative for latex-allergy sufferers.

The female/vaginal condom

The vaginal condom is also a polyurethane condom. It’s essentially a larger version of the traditional male/penis condom with an inner and outer ring. This type of condom works by being fitted inside the vagina before sex. And if you’re curious about how effective female condoms are, if used correctly (and that’s a big if), they’re 95% effective against STIs and pregnancy.

Where to get condoms

They’re all over the place. These forms of protection can be bought in supermarkets, chemists, pubs, bars, public toilets and petrol stations. They’re also available for free from family planning clinics and some young people’s centres such as Planned Parenthood. Wherever you buy yours from, make sure there’s a BSI kitemark or a CE mark on the packaging. This means they’ve been tested to a high safety standard. That way you know you’re good to go. 

What size condom do I need?

Condoms are pretty flexible and can fit comfortably on lots of different penis shapes and sizes. They aren’t one size fits all though. We’d recommend just trying a few different brands and sizes until you find the combo that feels right.

Putting on a condom

Remember that awkward demonstration your teacher gave you in PSHE when they tried to roll a condom onto a banana or something resembling that shape? Well, we’re gonna attempt to avoid the awkwardness and explain it with words: 

  • If they’re not new, check the expiration date to make sure they are in date. Yes, condoms actually have an expiration date. 
  • Roll the condom onto an erect penis before sex, preferably before any kind of sexual activity really. It’s always best to put a condom on the penis before any sexual contact. This is cause, fun fact, during arousal the penis might release a clear liquid (called precum) which can contain semen.
  • Always pinch the teat at the top of the condom before rolling it over the penis. Holding the condom like this will help ensure that you’re putting on the condom right (teat facing upwards). Plus, it’ll expel any trapped air. This reduces the risk of the condom splitting during sex.
  • After sex, hold the condom base when withdrawing the penis. This prevents it from slipping off. Dispose of it responsibly and if you’re up for any more action be sure to roll on another one, repeating the steps above.

How to put on a condom without being awkward

It might seem like pausing to put on a condom isn’t the sexiest thing in the world, and – we’re gonna be real here – it’s not really. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to do it without being awkward. For example, you could ask your partner to continue to stimulate you whilst you get the condom out, you could stimulate yourself whilst they unpack it, or even ask them to put it on for you. If you go with the last option just make sure that they know what they’re doing beforehand.

Benefits of condoms:

Here are some great things about this form of contraceptive:

  • Condoms are the only contraceptive that can prevent pregnancy AND sexually transmitted diseases, including the HIV virus.
  • They offer a chance for people with penises to take responsibility for contraception.
  • Condoms are widely available and free from a number of different places.

Drawbacks of condoms:

They aren’t all good, you know. These are some things you need to be aware of:

  • Condoms may slip or split. Especially if handled roughly or torn by sharp fingernails or jewellery.
  • Latex condoms are actually weakened by oil-based lubricants (think Superman and Kryptonite). Contact with substances like body lotion, sun tan lotion, baby oil or Vaseline can quickly destroy the material.
  • You have to interrupt sex to put a condom on. That being said, it’s a small price to pay for protection from sexually transmitted infections.

Myths about condoms:

Might as well call us myth-busters cause we’re about to take down some rumours floating around about condoms: 

  • Condoms are painful: Not if you put it on correctly and find one that fits. Remember, there’s actually sizes to condoms. This means that you may need to experiment with various brands before you find one that feels comfortable.
  • Wearing two is better than one: Wrong. The friction between two layers of latex can actually cause holes, leaving you and your partner vulnerable to STIs and pregnancy.
  • Sex without a condom is healthier: Afraid not. Having unprotected sex not only puts your partner at risk of unwanted pregnancy but also exposes you to STIs. Trust us, there’s nothing healthy about that.

If you lose your erection with condoms

Losing your erection when using condoms from time to time affects a lot of people. We’ve got an article here which may help.

Safe oral sex

Remember, it’s not just penetrative sex that transfers STIs. You can catch chlamydia, herpes, syphilis, and gonorrhoea from having unprotected oral sex as well. The HPV virus, which causes warts and (though rarely) cancer, can also be caught from having oral sex. Very unsexy if you ask us. 

So make sure you’re protected and practice safe oral sex by using a condom or dental dam.

Next Steps

By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 24-Jun-2022