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Illustrations by Marta Pucci

Reading time: 11 min

Condoms: common questions and misconceptions

Even if you’re not the one wearing the condom, it’s good to know the answers.

Top things to know:

  • Condoms are an effective form of non-hormonal birth control

  • Using a condom with every sexual activity is the most effective way to prevent STIs and pregnancy with just one method

  • Use water or silicone-based lube with latex condoms

  • Talk to your partner about using condoms and don’t feel pressured to agree to something that feels unsafe

  • Condoms are not reusable

"Are condoms effective?"

"Are they always necessary?"

"What is the correct way to put one on?"

Even if you’re not the one wearing the condom, it’s helpful to know the answers. In Clue’s 2018 study with the Kinsey Institute Condom Use Research Team (KI-CURT), 75% of women said condom use is something they decide about together with their partner. Read on to get informed, so you can make the best decisions about sex, protection, and pregnancy.

How effective are condoms?

Are condoms an effective form of birth control?

Yes. Condoms are an effective form of birth control. If used “typically” (not following the directions every time or forgetting to wear one sometimes), about 13 out of 100 people will get pregnant in one year of use (1). If used “perfectly” every time (following the directions on the package), 1-2 people out of 100 will get pregnant in one year (2%) (1). 

Internal “female” condoms are less effective but still the right choice for some people. With typical use, 21 out of 100 people will get pregnant in one year of use and with perfect use, 5 out of 100 people will get pregnant in one year of use (1). Knowing the effectiveness of the birth control you choose to use is very important.

If used correctly with every sexual encounter, both internal and external condoms significantly decrease the chances of getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (1).  

Do condoms protect against all STIs?

It depends. They are most effective against STIs that are transmitted through bodily fluids. Consistent and correct use of external or internal condoms can reduce the chances of sharing  gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis, even if you have sex with multiple partners or do sex work (2, 3, 4). If you have penis-in-vagina sex with an external condom, you are 80% less likely to contract human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), compared to sex without a condom (5).

Some STIs like herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), syphilis, and chancroid are shared through skin-to-skin contact. If an ulcer or open sore related to an STI is not completely covered, the STI can still be shared (6, 7). 

How can I make condoms more comfortable?

Condoms can help people feel more relaxed about sex, and reduce worries about STIs and unplanned pregnancy (8). Some condoms have extra features like tingling lubrication or ribbing that can make sex more pleasurable for both partners. 

If a condom is uncomfortable, there are different sizes and types of condoms that can offer a better fit. Using the correct size is important, as condoms that are too small or tight might break, and condoms that are too big might slip off. Lubricants can help sex feel better for everyone (1). 

Does it matter which lubricant I use?

Yes. The best lubricant for vaginal or anal sex with a condom is water-based or silicone-based lube (1). Oil-based lubes (or any other oil products like petroleum jelly or mineral oil) should not be used with latex condoms, as they may cause them to break (9). Plus, sex with lube feels good! In a 2013 study, most women reported that lube made sex feel “more comfortable,” “more pleasurable,” and simply “better” (10 ). Many non-latex condoms (like those made of polyisoprene) are also sensitive to oil-based personal lubricants, so check the package (11).

Do I need to use a condom if…

Do I need to use a condom for oral or anal sex?

Yes. STIs such as HIV, syphilis, herpes, gonorrhoea, HPV, trichomoniasis, and chlamydia, can all be contracted during oral sex (12, 13). Using either a condom or a dental dam during oral sex can prevent sharing between partner’s mouths and genitals (13). Flavored condoms can mask the taste of latex.

A US study found condoms were 70% effective in preventing transmission of HIV during anal sex with a person living with HIV (14). The anus does not produce enough natural lubrication on its own. Decreased lubrication can allow for skin to break and bleed; this allows the virus to move from one person to another more easily. A personal lubricant can make anal sex safer (15). Using a silicone or water-based lubricant decreases the chances of condom breakage while having anal sex (1), but oil-based lubricants weaken latex and should not be used(1). Saliva does not provide enough lubrication (15).

Do I need to use condoms if I’m on the pill? What if I’m in a monogamous relationship?

If you want to be protected from STIs, then yes. The pill doesn't protect you or your partner from STIs. Condoms do. Condoms can also be used as back-up protection in case you forget to take your birth control pill (1). Clue has a helpful reminder feature for those tracking their oral contraception, that will remind you to use back-up protection if you miss a dose.

A monogamous relationship doesn’t automatically protect you from STIs. Unless you are positive that you and your partner only have sex together and you both have recently tested negative for STIs, it is a good idea to use condoms.  Anyone can get a sexually transmitted infection, sometimes without noticeable symptoms (1). Although some STIs produce discharge or other visible signs, it’s not always possible to tell by looking at someone if they have an STI (1).

I don’t have any sex involving a penis. Do I still need condoms?

No penis, no problem? Not quite. If you’re sharing sex toys, covering them with condoms is a good way to prevent bacterial vaginosis (BV), a change in the balance of bacteria. BV is not an STI (1). Remember to change the condom each time you change partners, or when you change from anal to vaginal use (1).

How to use condoms

Using a condom as directed on the package actually increases how effective it is. Since the directions are sometimes in fine print, here are some tips. 

What is the correct way to put on a condom (1)?

1. Check the expiration date printed on the wrapper or box and make sure the condom is not expired.

2. Open the package carefully—use only your hands to open it and no tools or teeth.  Take a look at the condom to check that it’s not brittle, dried out or damaged.

3. Look at the condom to make sure it will roll in the "correct" way. The rim of the condom should form a circle around the dome. If the rim is on the inside of the dome, then the condom will be inside out and will not roll down properly. If you accidentally put a condom on inside out, don’t turn it around and then reuse it—start over with a new one.

4. Put the condom on before any contact with a partner’s mouth or genital area (vulva, vagina, anus, buttocks, and upper thighs). Sperm may be present in pre-ejaculatory fluid (“pre-cum”).

5. Lubricant (lube) can make sex feel better, and it helps stop condoms from breaking. You can put a few drops of water-based or silicone lubricant inside the tip of the condom before you roll it on. You can also add more lube to the outside of the condom after it's on the penis.

6. Pinch the tip of the condom and roll it on to an erect (hard) penis, leaving a little bit of space at the top to collect semen. Roll the condom down the shaft of the penis all the way to the base. For people who are uncircumcised, it might be more comfortable to pull the foreskin back before placing the condom on the tip of the penis and rolling it down.

7. Wear the condom the whole time you’re having sex.

8. After ejaculation, hold the rim of the condom while pulling the penis out of your partner’s body. Do this before the penis goes soft, so the condom doesn’t get too loose and let semen out. Carefully take off the condom to avoid spilling any semen.

9. Throw the condom away in the garbage—don’t flush it down the toilet.

10. Condoms are not reusable. Roll on a new condom every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. You should also use a new condom if you switch from one kind of sex to another (like anal to vaginal).

Is it better to use two condoms instead of one?

No. One condom used as directed is all the protection you need. If you put two condoms on at once, there's a higher chance of condom breakage (1). This also applies if you use a condom worn on the penis together with an internal condom. Best to stick to one condom, and use some condom-safe lubricant.

Can I still use condoms if I’m allergic to latex?

Yes. A latex allergy doesn’t mean you need to stop having sex, or that the only option is unprotected sex. Many different non-latex condoms are available: condoms can be made of polyurethane, polyisoprene, AT-10 synthetic resin, synthetic nitrile rubber, or lambskin (1). These are readily available at most pharmacies and can be used in the same way as a latex condom. Lambskin condoms do not protect against STIs (1).

Internal condoms are often made of polyurethane or nitrile, which is safe to use for people who are allergic to latex (1). Another benefit to polyurethane or nitrile internal condoms is that they can be used with all types of lubricants (including oil-based lubricants) (1, 16).

What should I do if the condom breaks?

If you feel the condom break at any point during sexual activity, stop immediately, withdraw the penis from the vagina or anus, remove the broken condom, and put on a new condom. If a condom breaks and you're not using any other birth control, you can go to a pharmacy and buy emergency contraception if you want to prevent pregnancy (1). 

What if my partner doesn’t want to use a condom?

Birth control and condom use are the responsibility of all people who engage in sex together in a relationship. Be open with your partner about what you want and what makes you feel safe. You may be the first person to bring up the conversation about using condoms, but an ideal partner respects your request even if they haven’t talked about it before. Never feel pressured to agree to something that makes you feel unsafe. It might help to prepare some answers or think of what to do if your partner gives you any common condom excuses.

Wearing a condom when asked is an important part of sexual consent. There are times when power imbalances might make asking your partner to wear a condom an unsafe request. Sexual consent is not always an option. Some relationships are abusive verbally, emotionally, physically, or any combination of these. If asking your partner to wear a condom puts you at risk for violence or injury, you might consider invisible forms of birth control like the shot. 

Any person who forces or pressures you to participate in sexual activities that you do not want to is an unsafe person. If a partner is not willing to listen about how their actions make you feel or they respond with anger or violence, there is help. You may want to learn about warning signs of an unsafe relationship, how to leave an abusive partner, or how to find safety online. If it’s an emergency, call someone you trust who can provide you with a safe place to go. Everyone deserves to feel safe in a relationship and during sex. 

Let’s wrap this up:

Now that you know more about condoms, you can decide what level of risk is okay for you, and choose what kind of contraception or protection to use. The most effective way to prevent pregnancy is to use condoms and another form of birth control. If you're taking the pill, you can track in Clue and get personalized advice on what to do if you miss a pill.

If after reading this you're worried you might be pregnant, check out our guide to emergency contraception , advice about what to do if your period is late, and information on the symptoms of early pregnancy.

Understanding your body can improve usage of non-hormonal birth control.

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