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Condoms

Michael Carter, Selina Corkery
Published: 23 October 2013

Condoms are used during sex to provide a barrier. When used properly and consistently, they can prevent HIV and many other sexually transmitted infections. Used correctly, they are also an effective form of contraception (preventing a pregnancy). Both male and female condoms are available.

Male condoms

Male condoms come in a range of shapes, sizes, thicknesses, flavours, textures and colours. Though the standard size will fit most men, smaller and larger condoms are available. Use a brand that fits well. Some condoms are only designed to enhance sexual pleasure and do not act as an effective, protective barrier. Check the information on the package. Normal-strength condoms can be safely used for anal sex.

Using male condoms correctly

Condoms come rolled up in a plastic or foil wrapper. When opening the wrapper be careful not to tear the condom.

  • Put the condom on once the penis is hard, but before any sexual contact begins. Unroll the condom all the way down the shaft of the penis.
  • Condoms come with a teat or a plain end. In either case, it is important to allow enough room for the semen to be able to fill the end of the condom. Make sure there is no air in the condom, by holding the teat or end between your thumb and forefinger as you roll the condom on. If you leave air in the end of the condom, it may break when you ejaculate into it.
  • If the penis goes soft, the condom may slip. This is the biggest single cause of condom failure. Holding the base of the condom will help it stay in place. If the condom slips or breaks, withdraw immediately and use a new one.
  • After ejaculating, withdraw the penis promptly, before it goes soft. Hold on to the base of the condom as you withdraw.
  • Never re-use condoms. Don’t use two condoms at once, as the friction between them may cause them to split.
  • If you are having penetrative sex for a long time, the risk of the condom breaking increases. It is safest to change the condom every 30 minutes.

Choosing a lubricant

Lubricants can be used to assist penetration in vaginal and anal sex. The vagina usually lubricates itself when a woman is sexually aroused; you may not need additional lubricant for vaginal sex unless the vagina feels dry.

You should always use lubricant for anal sex. Most condoms come pre-lubricated, but this is not adequate for anal sex and may not be for vaginal sex. 

Apply lubricant to the outside of the condom (once you’re wearing it) and to the entrance to the rectum or vagina. Don’t put lubricant inside the condom as this can cause it to slip off during sex.

Latex condoms should be used with a water-based, or preferably silicone-based lubricant. Never use oil-based lubricants such as body lotions, massage oils, or Vaseline, as these weaken the latex and can cause the condom to break.

Female condoms

The female condom (sometimes referred to by the brand name Femidom) is a thin plastic pouch (made of polyurethane) with a flexible ring at each end. Instead of being put on to the penis, it is put inside the vagina. It comes pre-lubricated, but you may want to use additional lubricant; you can use any sort as the female condom is not made of latex.

Using female condoms correctly

You can put a female condom in several hours before having sex if you want to.

  • Find a comfortable position. You can stand with one foot on a chair, sit on the edge of a chair or bath, lie down, or squat.
  • Squeeze together the sides of the inner ring at the closed end of the female condom and insert it into the vagina like a tampon.
  • Putting a finger inside the female condom, push the inner ring into the vagina as far as it can go.
  • Pull out your finger and let the outer ring stay outside the vagina.
  • When you are ready to have sex, use your hand to guide your partner’s penis in, making sure his penis doesn’t slip between the condom and the side of the vagina.
  • The female condom is loose-fitting and will move during sex. That’s fine as long as the penis stays inside it.
  • You don’t have to take it out immediately after sex. When you do remove it, squeeze and twist the outer ring to keep semen inside the pouch. Gently pull it out of the vagina.

Spermicides

Some condoms are coated with a spermicide to assist contraception. However, the spermicide nonoxynol-9 can cause irritation, genital sores or lesions in the rectum or vagina and increase the chance of passing on an infection, including HIV. Try to avoid condoms with a spermicide, and don’t use additional spermicide as a lubricant.

Choosing and getting condoms

It's important to choose good quality condoms. Check for a quality mark such as the BSI Kitemark or the European CE mark. Condoms are marked with a ‘best before’ or expiry date. If this date has passed, throw the condoms away. Don’t use condoms that have been exposed to the light or direct heat for any length of time.

Male condoms are commonly sold in chemists, garages and supermarkets, and from vending machines. Many chemists and supermarkets also sell female condoms, although these aren’t as widely available. Most male condoms are made of latex (rubber). If you are allergic to latex, there are some condoms available which are latex free, made of thin plastic such as polyurethane. These can be used with oil-based lubricants. 

HIV clinics and sexual health (genitourinary medicine, or GUM) clinics provide free condoms, as do family planning clinics. Our online tool, the e-atlas, is a good place to start looking for local services and providers of free condoms: www.aidsmap.com/e-atlas.

Male condoms are also available at many gay venues, but not all, so take them with you to be sure. 

Male and female condoms can be bought on the internet. Make sure you are buying them from a reliable retailer and check for a quality mark. You can buy condoms cheaply from this NHS website: www.freedoms-shop.com

Advice on using condoms

If you’re having difficulties with condoms, such as breakages, or irritation in the genital area, or perhaps you’re finding it difficult to negotiate using condoms with your partner, you can speak to a health adviser in your HIV or GUM clinic. Health advisers are trained to offer advice and support on sexual health.

Contact NAM to find out more about the scientific research and information used to produce this factsheet.

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.