How Condoms Work

Female Condoms

A female condom vs. a male condom
A female condom vs. a male condom
2009 HowStuffWorks

Almost all condoms sold and used around the world are latex condoms that fit over the penis. However, these have a few drawbacks. In some regions, social expectations make it difficult or impossible for women to insist that their male partners wear condoms. This can also be true among commercial sex workers in some parts of the world, whose clients may refuse to wear condoms. The female condom, which helps address some of these concerns, made its debut in Switzerland in 1992. In the United States, the FDA approved it for distribution in 1993.

The female condom is a polyurethane sheath that is closed at one end and open at the other. Each end has a ring that holds the condom in place. The ring that fits inside the vagina, holding the closed end near the cervix, is smaller than the one that holds the condom on the outside of the body. It also provides women with a barrier method they have complete control over and can help protect against HIV and pregnancy.

The female condom has several other advantages over male condoms. It covers part of the labia, which can help protect against the transmission of some STIs that live on the skin. A woman can insert the condom before any sexual activity begins, while a male condom can be applied only after a man has an erection. Since the female condom is made from polyurethane, it can also be used with oil-based lubricants, unlike latex condoms. Finally, one study suggests that supplying commercial sex workers with both male and female condoms reduces the number of unprotected sex acts overall [source: UNAIDS via Young].

However, the female condom also has some disadvantages:

  • It's more expensive than the male condom, which has led women in some parts of the developing world to wash and reuse it. One study suggests that washing the female condom up to 10 times does not significantly break down the condom [source: FHI].
  • In clinical trials, it appears to be slightly less effective at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) than male condoms. However, it is significantly safer than unprotected sex.
  • Many users find it more difficult to insert than male condoms are to unroll.