External (male) and internal (female) condoms are barrier methods of contraception. They stop sperm meeting an egg.
An external condom fits over an erect penis and is made of very thin latex (rubber), polyurethane (plastic) or polyisoprene.
There are also external novelty condoms available. These condoms may not protect you from pregnancy and don't help protect you from sexually transmitted infections so the information below doesn't apply to them.
Effectiveness: External condoms are most effective when used perfectly. They’re 98% effective at preventing pregnancy with perfect use and 82% effective with typical use.
Remember before sex: Use a new condom each time you have sex.
Periods: Condoms won’t alter your periods.
Hormones: No hormones.
How effective any contraceptive is depends on how old you are, how often you have sex and whether you follow the instructions.
If 100 sexually active women don’t use any contraception, 80 to 90 will become pregnant in a year.
Perfect use: If external condoms are always used according to instructions they're 98% effective. This means that 2 women in 100 will get pregnant in 1 year.
Typical use: If external condoms are not always used according to instructions, about 18 in 100 women will get pregnant in 1 year.
Sperm can get into the vagina during sex, even if you use a condom. This may happen if:
- the penis touches the area around the vagina before a condom is put on (pre-ejaculation fluid, which leaks out of the penis before ejaculation, may contain sperm)
- the condom splits
- you use the wrong type or size of condom
- you don’t use the condom correctly
- the condom slips off
- the condom gets damaged, for example by sharp fingernails or jewellery
- you use too much or too little lubricant
- you use oil-based products (such as body lotions) with latex or polyisoprene condoms. These damage the condom.
If any of these happen, or if you've had sex without using contraception, you can get advice about emergency contraception.
External condoms are suitable for most people.
Some people are sensitive to the latex in external condoms. If this is a problem you can use external polyurethane condoms or internal condoms.
If you have a penis and you don't always keep your erection during sex, you may find it difficult to use an external condom.
- You only need to use them when you have sex.
- They help to protect both partners from some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
- There are no serious side effects from using condoms.
- Condoms come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
- They're easily available.
- A condom can sometimes slip off or split.
- Some people are sensitive to latex condoms, though this is rare.
- It's important to pull out after ejaculation, before the penis goes soft, holding the condom firmly in place at the base of the penis.
I've just had a baby, can I use condoms?
You can use condoms immediately after you've had a baby – using an additional lubricant can help to make sex more comfortable.
Can I use condoms after a miscarriage or abortion?
You can use condoms immediately after having a miscarriage or abortion.
External condoms are free from contraception and sexual health clinics and young people’s services, and some general practices and genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics.
They may also be available for free at some pharmacies and other locations as part of local schemes.
You can buy them from a pharmacy, by mail order or online as well as from vending machines, supermarkets, garages and other shops.
There are many different types of external condom to choose from, including regular, larger, trim, stimulating and fun.
These are made of latex or polyurethane. They're an average length and width to suit most penises and are straight sided with a round or teated end. Adult penis sizes do vary, but not by much. However, you may feel more comfortable with a larger or smaller condom.
These are condoms designed to fit a larger penis. They vary in shape and some are flared to improve comfort and to make them easier to put on.
Often known as trim condoms, small condoms are designed for a thinner or shorter penis.
Custom-made condoms are available for those who can't find a condom that's the right size or comfortable.
Most ejaculation delayer condoms contain benzocaine. Benzocaine is a low strength local anaesthetic, similar to that used in throat lozenges. It's put in the condom lubricant or teat and works by temporarily numbing the nerve endings of the penis.
Heightened stimulation condoms
Some contain a special lubricant that creates a warm or tingling sensation for both partners. Others contain extra lubricant to increase sensation. All brands have at least one style of condom that is textured – ribbed, dotted, and/or studded – which aims to increase sensation during sex.
Coloured, flavoured, glow-in-the-dark and novelty condoms are all aimed at making sex more fun. Check the packaging to make sure that they can be used to protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
These condoms are slightly thicker and sometimes have additional lubricant. They're usually made of latex. Strong condoms are not less likely to break.
These condoms are thinner than a regular condom, providing greater sensitivity for both partners.
Many latex condoms contain a milk protein called casein. Vegan condoms are free from all animal products.
When should I use lubricants with a condom?
Most external condoms come ready lubricated to make them easier to use. Some people also like to use additional lubrication.
Any lubricant can be used with polyurethane condoms.
However, if you're using a latex or polyisoprene condom you should never use oil-based products – such as body oils, creams, lotions or petroleum jelly – as a lubricant. This is because they can cause damage and make the condom more likely to split.
Some ointments can also damage latex or polyisoprene. If you're using medication in the genital area – for example, creams, pessaries, or suppositories – ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist if it will affect latex or polyisoprene condoms.
You can check the condom packaging to find out whether a condom is made from latex, polyurethane or polyisoprene.
Some condoms don’t have any lubricant on them so that you can choose not to use lubricant, or to use a lubricant of your own choice.
Do I need to use spermicide?
No. If used correctly, condoms are an effective method of contraception and you don't need additional spermicide – a chemical that kills sperm.
A few types of external condom are lubricated with spermicide. These types of condom are being phased out. Research shows that spermicide which contains Nonoxinol 9 may increase the risk of infection. If you can, avoid using spermicidally lubricated condoms and don’t use additional spermicide as a lubricant.
Which condoms are best for oral sex?
Any condoms can be used for oral sex. However, flavoured condoms are a good option because they’re not lubricated and come in a range of flavours to suit most people’s tastes.
Which condoms are best for anal sex?
Standard condoms are suitable for anal sex – there's no evidence that stronger or thicker condoms are better or safer.
It’s very important that you use extra lubrication for anal sex to reduce the risk of the condom breaking.
Can sperm travel through pores in the condom?
No. Neither latex nor polyurethane condoms have pores.
How are condoms tested to make sure they'll work?
Condoms go through several different tests to check:
- they're free from holes
- the strength and stretch of the latex
- the air pressure needed to burst one
- the safety of the packaging.
Going on holiday?
It's always a good idea to pack condoms – even if it’s ‘just in case’.
If you're going abroad, take your favourite brand from the UK. That way you won’t have to rely on a local brand which could be packaged in a foreign language or which may not have been produced to the same standards.
Where should I keep condoms?
Always keep packets of condoms and individual condoms where they can't be damaged by strong heat, sharp objects, light or damp.
This website can only give you general information about contraception. The information is based on evidence-guided research from the World Health Organization and The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. All methods of contraception come with a Patient Information Leaflet which provides detailed information about the method.
Remember – contact your doctor, practice nurse or a contraception clinic if you're worried or unsure about anything.