Contraception guide

Condoms

A woman can get pregnant if a man’s sperm reaches one of her eggs (ova). Contraception tries to stop this happening by keeping the egg and sperm apart or by stopping egg production. One method of contraception is the condom.

There are two types of condoms – male condoms, which are worn on the penis, and female condoms, which are worn inside the vagina. This page is about male condoms, where you can get them and how they work.

Male condoms are made from very thin latex (rubber), polyisoprene or polyurethane, and are designed to stop a man's semen from coming into contact with his sexual partner.

When condoms are used correctly during vaginal sex they help to protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

When used correctly during anal and oral sex, they help to protect against STIs. Condoms are the only contraception that protect against pregnancy and STIs.

At a glance: condoms

  • If used correctly every time you have sex, male condoms are 98% effective. This means that two out of 100 women using male condoms as contraception will become pregnant in one year.
  • You can get free condoms from contraception clinics, sexual health clinics and some GP surgeries.
  • Oil-based products, such as moisturiser, lotion and Vaseline, can make latex condoms less effective, but they are safe to use with condoms made from polyurethane or polyisoprene.
  • Water-based lubricant, available in pharmacies and sexual health clinics, is safe to use with all condoms, including latex ones.
  • It's possible for a condom to slip off during sex. If this happens, you may need emergency contraception, and to get checked for STIs.
  • Condoms need to be stored in places that aren't too hot or cold, and away from sharp or rough surfaces that could tear them or wear them away.
  • Putting on a condom can be an enjoyable part of sex, and doesn't have to feel like an interruption.
  • If you're sensitive to latex, you can use polyurethane or polyisoprene condoms instead. 
  • A condom must not be used more than once. Use a new one each time you have sex.
  • Condoms have a use-by date on the packaging. Don't use out-of-date condoms.
  • Always buy condoms that have the CE mark on the packet. This means that they've been tested to European safety standards. Condoms that don't have the CE mark won't meet these standards, so don't use them.

How a condom works

Condoms are a barrier method of contraception. They stop sperm from reaching an egg by creating a physical barrier between them. Condoms can also protect against STIs if used correctly during vaginal, anal and oral sex.

It's important that the man's penis does not make contact with the woman's 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 condom, seek advice about emergency contraception from your GP or contraception clinic. Also, consider having an STI test.

How to use a condom 

  • take the condom out of the packet, taking care not to tear it with jewellery or fingernails – do not open the packet with your teeth
  • place the condom over the tip of the erect penis
  • if there's a teat on the end of the condom, use your thumb and forefinger to squeeze the air out of it
  • gently roll the condom down to the base of the penis
  • if the condom won't roll down, you're probably holding it the wrong way round – if this happens, throw the condom away because it may have sperm on it, and try again with a new one
  • after sex, withdraw the penis while it's still erect – hold the condom onto the base of the penis while you do this 
  • remove the condom from the penis, being careful not to spill any semen
  • throw the condom away in a bin, not down the toilet
  • make sure the man's penis does not touch his partner's genital area again
  • if you have sex again, use a new condom

Condoms with spermicide

Some male condoms come with spermicide on them. Spermicide's a chemical that kills sperm. These condoms are slowly being phased out as research has found that a spermicide called nonoxynol 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.

Who can use condoms

Most people can safely use condoms. There are many different varieties and brands of male condom, and it's up to you and your partner which type of condom you use. However, condoms may not be the most suitable method of contraception for everyone.

  • Some men and women are sensitive to the chemicals in latex condoms. If this is a problem, polyurethane or polyisoprene condoms have a lower risk of causing an 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. 

Advantages and disadvantages of condoms

It is important to consider which form of contraception is right for you and your partner. Take care to use condoms correctly, and consider using other forms of contraception for extra protection.

Advantages

  • when used correctly and consistently, condoms are a reliable method of preventing pregnancy 
  • they help protect both partners from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including chlamydiagonorrhoea and 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
  • male condoms are easy to get hold of and come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and flavours

Disadvantages

  • some couples find that using condoms interrupts sex – to get around this, try to make using a condom part of foreplay 
  • condoms are very strong but may split or tear if not used properly
  • some people may be allergic to latex, plastic or spermicides – you can get condoms that are less likely to cause an 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

If male condoms aren't used properly, they can slip off or split. If this happens, practise putting them on so that you get used to using them properly.  

Can anything make condoms less effective?

Sperm can sometimes get into the vagina during sex even when using a condom. This may happen if:

  • the penis touches the area around the vagina before a condom is put on
  • the condom splits or comes off
  • the condom gets damaged by sharp fingernails or jewellery
  • you use oil-based lubricants, such as lotion, baby oil or petroleum jelly, with latex condoms – this damages the condom 
  • you are using medication for conditions like thrush, such as creams, pessaries or suppositories – this can damage latex condoms and stop them working properly

If you think that sperm has entered the vagina, talk to your GP or staff at a contraception clinic about emergency contraception and the risk of STIs.

As well as condoms, you can use other forms of contraception, such as the contraceptive pill, for extra protection against pregnancy. However, other forms of contraception will not protect you against STIs. You will still be at risk of STIs if the condom breaks.

Using lubricant

Condoms come ready lubricated to make them easier to use, but you may also like to use additional lubricant, or lube. This is particularly advised for anal sex to reduce the chance of the condom splitting.

Any kind of lubricant can be used with condoms that are not made of latex. However, if you are using latex condoms, do not use oil-based lubricants, such as:

  • body oil or lotion
  • petroleum jelly or creams (such as Vaseline)

This is because they can damage the latex and make the condom more likely to split.

If a condom splits or comes off

If the condom splits or comes off, you can use emergency contraception to help prevent pregnancy. This is for emergencies only and shouldn't be used as a regular form of contraception.

Depending on the type of pill, you need to take the emergency contraceptive pill up to 72 hours or up to 120 hours (five days) after unprotected sex. The intrauterine device (IUD) can be used as emergency contraception up to five days after sex.

If you have been at risk of pregnancy, you have also been at risk of STIs. So have a check-up at:

  • a GP surgery
  • a contraception clinic
  • a sexual health clinic or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic
  • a young person's clinic

Risks

For most people, there are no serious risks associated with using condoms although some people are allergic to latex condoms. You can get condoms that are less likely to cause an allergic reaction.

Where to get condoms

Everyone can get condoms for free, even if they are under 16. They are available from:

  • contraception clinics
  • sexual health or GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinics
  • some GP surgeries 
  • some young people's services

Find sexual health services near you.

You can also buy condoms from:

  • pharmacies
  • supermarkets
  • websites
  • mail-order catalogues
  • vending machines in some public toilets
  • some petrol stations

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 as a sign of quality assurance. This means they have been tested to the required safety standards.

Contraception services are free and confidential, including for people under the age of 16.

If you're under 16 and want contraception, the doctor, nurse or pharmacists won't tell your parents (or carer) as long as they believe you fully understand the information you're given, and your decisions.

Doctors and nurses work under strict guidelines when dealing with young people under 16. They'll encourage you to consider telling your parents but they won't make you. The only time that a professional might want to tell someone else is if they believe you're at risk of harm, such as abuse. The risk would need to be serious, and they would usually discuss this with you first.

Page last reviewed: 15/01/2013

Next review due: 15/01/2015

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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Just Sayin said on 20 November 2014

For the man, Sex with condoms does not feel the same as sex without condoms. It is less pleasurable even if it is necessary.

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Media last reviewed: 11/07/2013

Next review due: 11/07/2015