Condoms are cheap, easy to get and pretty good at their jobs. So, they're a practical choice for people who want to have sex without making babies or passing around sexually transmitted infections – as long as they do it right. Male latex condoms, used consistently and correctly, are up to 94 percent effective at preventing the transmission of HIV and other STIs [source: WHO] And as long as they're used consistently and correctly, they're also up to 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy [source: CDC]. Not too shabby for a simple piece of latex.
Notice that I've already said "consistently and correctly" twice. Fail at either (or both) of those, and condoms are less effective. Case in point: "Up to 98 percent effective" for preventing pregnancy drops to more like 82 percent with imperfect use. And 94 percent drops to 80 percent for STI prevention [source: WHO].
"Consistent" is easy – it means using a condom every time, any time a penis is going into another person's body. (And it's not just for penises: Shared toys need condoms, too.) As for "correct": Condoms seem so straightforward they ought to be foolproof. Like I said, they're just a simple piece of latex. Yet people have found a plethora of ways to do it wrong.
Some of these 10 wrongs could apply to female condoms, dental dams or nonlatex condoms, but I'm sticking with male latex condoms for the sake of simplicity. And I'm going to assume that we're talking about actual condoms here – not jury-rigged substitutes thrown together from things around the house. There are zero right ways to use those.
Let's get started.
That huge box of extra-large rubbers can be a big ego boost for people shopping for themselves or a flattering gesture for people buying them for a partner. But there are three big problems with using condoms that are too big, especially when they're too wide. Ever worn a pair of shoes that's just a shade too big and suffered the consequences later? Then you already know one of them – friction. Fortunately, blisters aren't the problem here, but condoms can break when there's too much friction. Since they don't fit as snugly, too-big condoms can also leak. And, worst of all, a condom that's too loose may come off completely during sex. Then, the whole scenario moves from protected to unprotected – and possibly very awkward and uncomfortable – in one fell swoop.
Latex condoms are stretchy and should fit snugly, so, while it's fine to comparison shop for a favorite, in most cases, standard sizes do the job.
The wallet: home to money, ID and other useful stuff that most people don't leave home without – which makes it seem like a brilliant place to stow an emergency condom. But walking around with a wallet full of condoms isn't smart. Especially if they're in a back pocket, wallets are also home to friction, heat and pressure. All three make latex weaker, so wallet-stored condoms are some of the least reliable.
This rule goes double for glove compartments (and anyplace else that's subject to extreme temperatures). Just like candles, red wine and oral contraceptives, condoms should be stored in a cool, dry place.
Remember that thing on the previous page about how condoms and wallets don't mix? It's not just the heat-friction combo ... there's also the out-of-sight, out-of-mind factor. That sad, lonely condom, tucked between old receipts and tattered bills, may be long past its prime by the time anyone has a need for it. Condoms have expiration dates for a reason – old latex becomes brittle, even if it's been stored somewhere with much better climate control than a back pocket.
First step: Check the date on the package. If it's in the past, pitch it. Second step: Look at the condom itself. If it's dried out, sticky or brittle, it's too old to use. Throw it away.
In a hurry? Hoping to look cool? Tied to something? None of these is a good excuse for using teeth to tear open a condom. Latex is a good barrier against semen and pathogens, but not against teeth. Even if it's not visibly punctured or torn, a bitten condom may still be damaged enough to break.
Aside from all of those actual risks, lube can taste gross.
Don't look for anything sharp as a substitute for canines and incisors: Scissors, knives, long fingernails and basically anything else that's sharper than fingertips are also on the "Do Not Use" list. It's a little like that rule about not putting anything in your ear that's smaller than your elbow.
A run-of-the-mill condom wrapper has serrated edges to make it easier to open, and the foil or plastic material tears easily once it's started. It's a two-handed – but zero-toothed – operation. Plus, designers like Ben Pawle continue to come up with easier-to-open designs, like this one-handed condom package, for people who need them.
Forget that old wives' tale about confused couples cluelessly rolling condoms onto veggies after sex ed. There are plenty of wrong ways to put on a condom that people actually do in the real world, such as:
- Inside out: It will unroll only with extreme (and possibly damaging) difficulty, and, if you flip it over and use it anyway, stuff that should stay on the inside will be on the outside.
- Too tight: The end of the condom needs some space for semen to go. Up to 45.7 percent of people mess this up [source: Sanders et al.].
- Too airy: Friction against air bubbles makes condoms more likely to break. About more than 40 percent of people don't squeeze out the air [source: Sanders et al.].
- Partial unroll: A condom that isn't unrolled all the way can come off during sex – and it can't do a great job of preventing contact between people's parts while it's on.
- Unrolling before applying: As with an inside-out condom, it's a harder to put on a condom that's already unrolled – so it's also much easier to break.
Here are the right-way basics. Carefully remove the condom from the package and check for damage. Make sure it's right-side up, with the tip of the condom poking up from the center (not wrapping around from the outside). Squeeze the air out of the tip, leave about a thumb's width of space, and place it on the penis (or toy, if that's what's being sheathed up in this scenario). Unroll it all the way down, squeezing out any air bubbles. You can read more detail on the right way to put on a condom in How Condoms Work.
With so many wrong ways to put on condoms, everyone who uses them will probably slip up at some point during their sexual history. The worst thing to do when it happens, whether the condom's inside out, broken or on too tight, is just to ignore it and keep going. To repeat the last page: The deceptively simple solution of fixing a wrong-side-out condom by taking it off and flipping it the right way has its own major flaw. Once flipped, one partner's bodily fluid is on the outside, ready for contact with the other's. As many as 30 percent of people who accidentally start a condom off inside out make this mistake [source: Sanders et al.].
The best thing to do any time something goes wrong while putting on a condom is to throw that condom away and get a new one. It's a pretty good reason to keep extra condoms around (as long as they're not in a wallet, in a glove box or right next to the heating vent).
Latex pro: It's basically rubber, so it's stretchy. Latex con: It's basically rubber, so it's grippy. What it has in stretch, it lacks in slide.
Lots of rubbers are pre-lubricated to compensate for their annoyingly high coefficient of friction, but many people need (or want) things to be slipperier, or want a different lube than the ones that go on at the condom factory. But most of the slick substances likely to be around the house – like petroleum jelly or vegetable oil – don't mix well with condoms.
There are almost as many lubes to choose from as there are condoms, but water-soluble lubricants are the only ones that team up well with latex. Lubricants made with oil or petroleum products will weaken latex condoms, making them likelier to break. Water-soluble lubricants are also easier to wash away, which makes it easier to wash off any sperm or pathogens that might have gotten in there.
Condoms are a barrier method: They physically keep people's parts from touching. As a commonly cited (and complained-about) side effect, they can also reduce pleasure and sensation, so it can be tempting to put off putting one on.
Sadly, procrastination rarely works out well for anybody. The longer the rubber stays off, the more time people's bodily fluids have to accidentally tangle up with each other. Studies vary, but somewhere between 17 and 50 percent of people wait even later than the last possible minute, putting a condom on after starting sex [source: Sanders et al.]. That unprotected contact increases the risk of pregnancy and STI transmission.
The right time to put a condom on is before sex, not during.
Procrastination can waylay more than just putting a condom on. Waiting too long to take a condom off has its own set of problems. An erection can begin to fade immediately after ejaculation, meaning a condom that was snug at the start can go baggy right after the finish. The softer the penis gets, the more likely it is for semen to leak out of the condom.
Immediately after ejaculation, remove the penis, holding the rim of the condom to keep it secure. Then, carefully remove the condom to avoid spilling its contents. Wrap it in tissue or toilet paper, and throw it away.
This wrong way is No. 1 not because it's the worst wrong way – although it is pretty bad – but because it's hard to believe there are people who do it. After all, everybody knows condoms are disposable ... right?
Apparently, a few people do not. Between 1.4 and 3.3 percent of people reuse condoms during a single session of intercourse, and 1.5 percent of people reuse condoms during different sessions [source: Sanders et al.].
Apart from the yuck factor of reapplying a used condom, condoms just aren't safe to reuse. Sort of like there's not enough eye bleach to rid your brain of some of the most disturbing imagery the Internet, there's not enough scrubbing to make a condom OK to use again. Any treatment that would kill every sperm and every potential pathogen would also make the condom weaker.
Condom reuse is a bad idea. Use each one – correctly – once and only once, and then wrap it up and throw it away. In a wastebasket or garbage can ... not in the toilet.
Vasalgel could be a long-acting form of male birth control. Learn more about Vasalgel at HowStuffWorks Now.
Author's Note: 10 Completely Wrong Ways to Use a Condom
This article got its start as a misheard word during a meeting – we were really talking about wrong ways to use commas – and it became a running joke. But after hearing a listener ask about wrong ways to use condoms during Dan Savage's "Savage Love" podcast, I realized that "How do you use a condom wrong?" is a legitimate question people are asking. I'm always up for a frank conversation about contraception, and our readers seem to enjoy our articles about the wrong, silly and stupid. It also helped that I'd previously written How Condoms Work.
- AVERT. "Using Condoms, Condom Types and Sizes." (11/13/2012) http://www.avert.org/condom.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Contraception." 9/10/2012. (11/13/2012) http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/unintendedpregnancy/contraception.htm
- Holmes, King et al. "Effectiveness of Condoms in Preventing Sexually Transmitted Infections." Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 2004. (11/13/2012) http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/82/6/454.pdf
- Planned Parenthood. "Condom." (11/13/2012) http://www.plannedparenthood.org/health-topics/birth-control/condom-10187.htm
- Sanders, Stephanie et al. "Condom Use Errors and Problems: A Global View." Sexual Health. Vol. 9, 2012. (11/13/2012) http://www.publish.csiro.au/?act=view_file&file_id=SH11095.pdf
- World Health Organization. "Condoms for HIV Prevention." (11/13/2012) http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/condoms/en/index.html