Condoms (also known as rubbers, johnnies, or french letters) are thin latex or polyurethane barriers that are designed to fit over an erect penis.
How does it work?
Condoms work by providing a barrier that prevents semen from the man wearing the condom from getting inside the woman or man that he is having sex with, preventing pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. When the man wearing a condom ejaculates, his semen is held inside the condom in a reservoir (space) at the top.
Using a condom also protects the wearer from most STIs their partners may have, because it stops sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, from coming into contact with his penis. The only exception would be STIs that pass from skin-to-skin contact.
Condoms can be used for both penetrative vaginal and anal sex, as well as for oral sex.
How effective is it?
When used correctly, which means if it doesn’t slip off or break, a condom is 98 per cent effective in preventing pregnancy.
When choosing condoms make sure that the one that you are going to use has a BSI kitemark or CE mark, as this shows that it is a high quality condom which has been properly tested and approved. Also make sure that you check the use by date, and don’t use it if it has expired.
What are the advantages?
Condoms are easily available, but most importantly the condom is the only form of contraception which protects against both pregnancy and the transmission of most STIs, including HIV.
Condoms are also something you can use spontaneously, and you only need them when you are going to have sex.
What are the downsides?
Some people don’t like to use condoms because they find them tricky to put on, and putting a condom on incorrectly makes it more likely to slip off or break. Remember though, practice makes perfect, and the more you do it the better you will get – you can even use condoms when masturbating to practice.
Others complain that condoms interrupt sex, when all they want to do is get on with it. But putting a condom on doesn’t have to slow things down, and some men find that getting their partner to put it on, or help put it on, keeps things exciting.
Things to bear in mind
It is important not to use any oil-based lubricants, such as hand cream, baby oil or Vaseline, with condoms – always use water-based lubricants. This is because they can weaken the condom and cause them to tear or break more easily. Also be aware of any sharp nails or jewellery when putting a condom on, as this can also cause tears or holes.
Where can I get it from and how much does it cost?
You can get them free from your GP surgery, GUM clinics, young person’s and family planning clinics, as well as many young people’s services. You can also buy them, and they come in a huge range of shapes, sizes, colours and flavours, and some have extra features such as ribbing, which some find makes sex more enjoyable. Packs of condoms usually cost from around £3 for a pack of three.
If you'd like to know more about condoms, including tips for their use, condom options, and instructions on how to use them visit our condom pages.