The Ultimate Guide to Condoms

Condoms are the only method of contraception that also protects against Sexually Transmitted Diseases – STIs - and other illnesses which can be transmitted during sexual intercourse including oral sex and anal sex, such as HIV Aids.

Take a look at some quick ‘at a glance’ facts and figures before we dive right into the nitty-gritty.


  • Condoms in varying forms have been around for several centuries; the principle of interrupting the flow of the man’s semen and the inevitable consequences were easily understood by many societies, even early man. Asian cave paintings would tend to imply a use that dates back centuries and condoms were first mentioned in print around the 16th century
  • There are in fact two types of condom, one for the male and one for the female
  • Male condoms have a 98% strike rate protecting against unwanted pregnancies
  • A condom cannot be resued, they are designed to be ‘one use’ only
  • The majority of condoms are made of latex but if you are sensitive to latex or allergic to it, then there are alternatives made of polyurethane or polyisoprene
  • You can use water-based lubricants called ‘lube’ with all types of condoms, however oil-based products such as skin moisturiser or baby oil can affect both latex and polyisoprene condoms but are safe to combine with polyurethane condoms


How does the male condom work?

A condom is described as a ‘barrier’ method of contraception because a condom provides a physical barrier between male ejaculation and sperm-filled semen coming into contact with the female egg. It completely covers the male penis. Between male partners, the reproductive and contraceptive function of a condom is not relevant but it does serve as a barrier to prevent the exchange of bodily fluids during anal and oral sex and thereby protect against the transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections or STIs as well as HIVAids. Condoms also serve this purpose in heterosexual relationships and are therefore the only product or method which has both a contraceptive and a disease prevention function.


How does the female condom work?

The female condom works along the same principles as the male equivalent and is inserted into the vagina rather than being placed over the man’s penis. Here are some key facts about female condoms:-

  • They have a lower protection rate than the male equivalent at 95%
  • They also protect against STIs as well as unwanted pregnancies.
  • Female condoms are placed in the vagina before sex but can be inserted earlier on in the proceedings than the male version, anything up to four hours ahead
  • Female condoms are also ‘one use’ only and cannot be reused after intercourse
  • They bear the same Kite mark and CE mark as the male version which acts as an assurance to the user of the quality of manufacture and production

How to use a male condom


Using a male condom correctly is key to its safety and effectiveness. A condom will not offer protection if it is used incorrectly, is damaged either before or during the process or is reused. This is how to use a male condom correctly:-

  • Ensure your condom is within date and has the appropriate safety/kite marks on the packaging
  • Open the packet carefully, do not tear open it with your teeth – tempting if your hands are slippery – or tear it with your fingernails or jewellery as you run the risk of actually ripping the condom inside
  • Most condoms have an obvious teat, hold it between your thumb and forefinger and slowly squeeze out the air. Leaving air in the reservoir at the end of the condom can cause it to burst during sexual intercourse
  • Place the condom over the tip of the penis and gently unroll it. The condom should unravel easily and with no resistance, if it doesn’t, then discard it immediately and try again with a fresh packet. The condom may essentially be upside down which is why it won’t unroll properly or it could already have some sperm on it, in either scenario, you should discard it
  • After ejaculation, keep a firm hold of the base of the condom whilst you withdraw to make sure the condom doesn’t slide off, it may already have moved down the penis towards the tip during the act of intercourse
  • Carefully remove the condom being vigilant about any spillages so that all the semen remains contained within the condom
  • Dispose of the condom in a bin and not down the toilet
  • Be careful as there can be a residue of sperm on the penis which needs to be kept away from the genital area
  • Each act of sexual intercourse needs a fresh condom


How to use a female condom


Some women prefer to use a female condom as it gives them more control of proceedings; they feel that this is not only safer but can get around standard male reasons and excuses not to use one. Female condoms do have obvious, clear advantages one of which is the fact that they can be inserted up to four hours before intercourse. Here is how to use a female condom correctly:-

  • Open the packet carefully being careful not to tear or rip it
  • There is a small ring at the closed end of the condom, squeeze it together and then insert into the vagina
  • The large opening at the other end of the condom should cover the area around the vagina
  • Be careful when the man inserts his penis to ensure it sits inside the condom and does not slide between the condom and the wall of the vagina. The female condom has a looser, less snug feeling so be certain that everything is in the right location
  • After intercourse, the condom should gently slide out, you can close off the business end by twisting it around to avoid leakages and spillage
  • Dispose of the condom in a bin, not the toilet
  • Always use a fresh condom each time you have sex


To Lube or not to Lube, that is the question?

Water-based lubricants are all fine in conjunction with both the male and female condom but oil-based products – essential massage oils, skin moisturisers, Vaseline or body lotions – are not recommended for use with latex or polyisoprene condoms because they can damage the integrity of the material. Most condoms are supplied with some lube on them but if you want to use additional lubrication or you have been enjoying massage oils then be careful what you combine with the condom. Anything that might affect the strength of the condom may make it more likely to split or rip. picture5.png

What are the different materials that condoms can be made from?

Latex which is a natural form of rubber produced from the rubber tree is currently the most popular material used by condom manufacturers. Latex is actually the milky white sap produced by the rubber tree and is used prolifically in lots of products, not just condoms such as rubber bands, balloons, surgical gloves and novelty masks.

But Latex condoms are not without drawbacks in that they can adversely react with oil-based products which can be easy to overlook in the heat of the moment – sun cream, baby oil, essential oils, skin moisturisers – and this causes degradation of the material. Oil reduces the elasticity of latex and can cause the condom to slip or break and also, some people are actually allergic to latex.

However, there is no doubt that latex has remarkable tensile strength and elasticity which means it can be put under the most incredible pressure and force before it breaks which is why it has been such a popular choice for condom manufacturers.

In May 2009, the FDA in the States gave approval for condoms made of Vytex which is a form of latex from which 90% of the allergens known to produce an adverse response when in contact with the skin, had been removed.

As an alternative to latex, polyurethane is another reasonably common option for condoms and these condoms are a similar width and thickness to those made from latex. Polyurethane has some distinct advantages over latex in that is a better conductor of heat and this can really increase sensitivity and pleasure during the act of sexual intercourse. Polyurethane condoms can also be used with oil-based products and pleasingly, they lack the rather unpleasant and off-putting odour associated with latex. These condoms are also less sensitive to heat and ultra-violet light so storage requirements are less stringent than for latex condoms. But polyurethane is less elastic than latex so could potentially be more likely to break or tear; they don’t hold their shape as well as latex condoms and can bunch up which subjects them to a greater likelihood of damage.

Polyisoprene which is a relatively new material on the market is a synthetic version of latex. It is expensive but avoids the problem of latex allergies as it is absent the proteins which cause this reaction. It is soft and elastic and superior in this respect to polyurethane but cannot be used with oil-based products.

For those who really hanker after something ‘au naturel’, lambskin condoms or natural membrane condoms could be an option. They are made from sheep intestines and are definitely not a pick for the vegetarians and vegans. Intestines, by their very nature, are designed to be partially porous to allow the transmission of nutrients from the gut wall into the body’s bloodstream to be distributed around the body. Whilst sperm is unlikely to pass through these pores as sperm is simply too large, viruses may be able to pass across but as yet, there is not sufficient solid scientific data to either support or disprove this. As a consequence, it can be presumed that lambskin condoms will not provide total protection against STIs but could offer some protection and they will protect against unwanted pregnancies.

Latex allergies


Some people have an allergy to latex and this can be discovered through exposure to latex products like surgical gloves, not just condoms. Symptoms can include specific spots and a rash on any area of your skin which the latex has come into contact with so essentially, dermatitis, there may even be localised swelling at the site. But there can also be more generalised symptoms such as irritated and watery eyes, a runny nose and sneezing and potentially, some wheezing in the breathing. Very rarely, latex can produce a life-threatening reaction in some people a bit like an anaphylactic shock which some people suffer in reaction to certain foods like nuts.

Why don’t people like using condoms?

The main criticism levelled at condoms is that they can interrupt the sexual experience right at the optimum moment and, they can decrease the pleasure and sensitivity felt by both parties engaged in the act. These two factors but particularly the latter, are often touted as reasons or excuses not to use a condom amongst some people. picture7.png

There are ways of counteracting the first problem by incorporating the putting on of a condom into sexual play so it doesn’t have to act as a hiatus during proceedings or a passion killer. However, lack of sensitivity is a trickier problem to tackle. For many men, this is just an ongoing gripe.

Researchers in the States have just produced a new condom lined with hydrogel, a water-based gel containing chemicals designed to kill the HIV virus in the event of a breakage. The gel also contains a revolutionary new antioxidant which is designed to enhance sexual pleasure by influencing the neurotransmitters which stimulate nerve endings. But here are some easy and quick solutions to improve the condom experience:-

  • Sexual play – incorporate condom application as part of the love making process. Have condoms ready to hand – a five-minute departure to the bathroom or further afield really can be a real turn off. Maintain safe intimacy whilst the condom is going on although reduce the temptation to rip the packet with your teeth as this can damage the condom inside as well as tasting pretty unpleasant
  • Lube – less friction and a smoother ride will undoubtedly improve sensitivity and enhance pleasure. Some condoms already come with lube but you can add more, just make sure you use the right type depending on the material the condom is made from. Silicone is a good option as it is thick and lasts longer than water-based alternatives. Avoid oil-based lube as in the heat of the moment, you don’t want to be groping around trying to read the condom packet to satisfy yourself of the identity of the material the condom is made from. Lube with a nice scent can get around that rather unpleasant, sterile odour that is associated with most condoms, one which is definitely not an enhancement to bedroom proceedings
  • It’s all about the position – certain positions offer greater depth and sensitivity than others, a simple change of arrangement can really increase pleasure even with a condom. Different positions alter the shape and dimensions of the vagina so can increase tension and tautness

Lack of sensitivity can have an upside: for rapid firers, a decrease in pleasure can make the whole encounter last a little longer!

More condom research to improve the experience picture8.png

The use of condoms particularly amongst young people under the age of 25 who don’t perhaps quite perceive the risk from STIs is depressingly patchy and low; in a recent survey, almost half of the under 25s surveyed admitted to not using a condom with a new partner. So the quest to make the condom ever better continues amongst manufacturers and scientific research organisations. In third world countries, there is a life and death imperative so anything that can make the condom more desirable and popular has got to be a good thing.

Bill Gates, the Microsoft Supremo, has stepped down from his role running a global tech giant and, with his spouse, Melinda, is focusing more time on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation works on global health and education initiatives and in 2013, threw down the gauntlet to condom manufacturers and any other interested parties, to develop the next generation of condom, condoms fit for the 21st century. Most of the entries for a slice of the money pie were aimed at condoms which gave more pleasure to the user as this equals a user who is much more likely to use a condom although some did focus on ease of application, another condom bugbear.

Entries to the project came in all sorts of guises and were truly international in range. One idea used hydrophilic polymers which, when in contact with moisture, become slippery to the touch removing the requirement to add more lube during sex. The substance seemed to transform into something with a remarkable slipperiness in the right conditions designed to keep going when other condoms would need more lube applied, all aimed at increasing sensation and pleasurability. The product has received favourable reports in the media and is just one example of a number of projects backed by the Gates Foundation to make condoms more loveable.

Why do condoms fail?picture9.png

Condoms normally fail through misuse and human error. An in date, kite marked condom that is securely sealed in a packet should not have any inherent flaws or faults. Condoms undergo very extensive testing before they leave the factory. The commonest causes for condom failures and unwanted STIs and pregnancies are:-

  • Not using a condom every time you have sex, a condom may be used on the first occasion but subsequent encounters during the same time period often go without
  • The condom was damaged or torn whilst it was being removed from the packet
  • The condom is not correctly placed on the penis before intercourse
  • The condom is the wrong size resulting in a break or the condom slipping off altogether
  • The wrong lubricant was used damaging the integral structure of the condom material
  • The condom was not stored at the correct temperature
  • The condom is out of date
  • The condom is a cheap foreign import without quality assurance testing

But, with the best will in the world, condoms sometimes just do break or tear, the key thing is that the damage is noticed and then appropriate steps can be taken in terms of STI testing and emergency contraception to guard against unwanted pregnancy. There is one thing worse than a burst condom and that is a burst condom which has gone unnoticed.

What sexual diseases do condoms protect against?

Condoms are not a 100% guarantee against contracting sexual diseases, they simply reduce the risk of transmission. The only copper-bottomed way to ensure a zero risk of STIs is total abstinence from sex or sex with a very long-term and exclusive partner.

STIs are spread by vaginal, anal and oral sex but sensible condom usage will significantly reduce your chances of contracting one or more of the following:-

  • Genital herpes
  • Genital warts
  • Gonorrhoea
  • Chlamydia
  • Hepatitis B
  • HIV – Human Immunodeficiency Virus
  • Syphilis

Even with condom usage, regular testing for STIs is advisable particularly in scenarios of multiple partners or lots of casual sex.

One size most certainly does not fit all picture10.png

Sizing isn’t really the first or even second thing that comes to mind when choosing a condom, after all, they are super elastic and designed to be snug so it’s hard to imagine a condom not fitting. But, there are size variations amongst condom manufacturers. Get the wrong size and you expose yourself not only to an unpleasant experience but the potential for a leak or even a break in the condom.

There is a well known and simple toilet roll test, not very scientific but a good starting point if you feel you need one. If an erect penis can fit into an empty cardboard toilet roll holder with room to spare, then this probably indicates a requirement for tight fit condoms. If the toilet roll is just comfortable then that user is possibly medium or standard size and if it's snug, then you will need a large sized condom. It’s quite important to play around (pun definitely intended!) and find a size and brand that suits you. Sizing is not standard so if you change manufacturer then you might need to go through a re-fitting process again. Some companies sell a multi-pack with different sizes to help you work out which is the best fit for you or trial packs so that you can experiment with varying lengths and widths.

Ribbed, flavoured and novelty condoms

There are lots of ways to entice customers to buy condoms, novelty presentation is certainly one way. Ribbed and dotted condoms which are said to increase stimulation and enhance sexual pleasure is another variation on the theme. Dressing condoms up in sexy, alluring packaging and creating either a saucy or a fun theme is very popular. Bear in mind that it is easy to get lured onto websites which are selling enticing condoms but the actual base product might not be up to specification or be subject to the same quality assurance so only purchase from reputable sites where there is a minimum standard of product, guaranteed.

Flavoured condoms are really only a thing for oral sex with all sorts of fruit berry and even cocktail varieties on offer. Again, you should only buy flavoured condoms from a reputable supplier in order to avoid cheap, foreign imported condoms that come with no quality assurance or testing and may offer little or no actual protection.

Where to buy condoms picture11.png

Condoms can be bought from any high street chemist, online pharmacy or in supermarkets. Condoms are also available for free from some Doctor’s surgeries and sexual health and contraceptive clinics. A condom packet should display the British Standards Institute (BSI) kite mark plus the CE mark which is the European Union equivalent. This means that the condom has been manufactured in line with specific industry standards and guidelines and is tested to be safe to use. Condoms packets will have a ‘use by’ date so make sure that what your purchase is still within date. This reflects the fact that latex and the other materials all have a life after which it can degrade and the packaging could become less sealed and secure.

Of course, the best place to buy condoms is Britishcondoms.ukJ

Condom testing, how can you be certain they are really safe?

Condoms are subject to a range of tests by the manufacturer before they are released for sale. Electronic testing or individual testing as it is sometimes referred to, stretch the condom over a piece of metal and then uses either air or water to see if a current of electricity can affect the metal. If the condom is 100% water and airtight then the rubber will not act as a conductor indicating that there are no tiny holes or punctures in the condom invisible to the naked eye.

Condoms are tested individually within the factory and then batches are also selected at random for quality assurance review against a series of predetermined standards. Air Burst testing does just what it says on the tin; condoms are filled with air and their strength and capacity are measured just prior to the point of bursting. Leak testing assesses the condom for tiny pinholes which may be invisible to the viewer or tester. Condoms are filled with water and evaluated for tiny droplets or seepage both visibly and also against dry material which will expose holes too tiny for the human eye to spot. Tensile strength is tested by a machine although this test is usually only performed on condoms which are sold as ‘super strong’ or ‘extra strength’. Packets are also tested once the condom has been wrapped; they are vacuum packed and the wrapping should be intact, secure and undisturbed.  

Condoms which don’t meet standards on all or any of these tests are discarded by the manufacturer. Testing procedures are both routine for all condoms and then there is additional random batch testing. Always satisfy yourself of the quality procedures in place before you purchase a condom. Manufacturers use different tests and sometimes it can be hard to spot the actual origin of a condom once you have clicked around online for a bit and hopped from one website to another.

Always aim to purchase condoms with the British kite mark and the CE logo for the European Union. The British kite mark is evidence of the British Standards Institute or BSI who independently sample products on a monthly basis to ensure they are compliant with defined standards of manufacture. The CE mark illustrates that the condom has met the standards prescribed by the Medical Device Directorate and is a European wide emblem; neither of these logos will appear on condoms which have been produced in third world countries like India or in China where they may be no quality control testing.

Keep Cool picture12.png

Condoms should be stored in a cool location and be kept out of direct sunlight. They should also be stored in a place where they cannot be accidentally ripped or torn if you intend to carry packets around with you in a wallet or jacket pocket.


There is no doubt that condoms are universally famed both for their disadvantages and drawbacks as well as their unique ability to protect against both STIs and unwanted pregnancies. With the increase of modern materials constantly coming on to the market coupled with advances in scientific knowledge plus the interest and financial backing of heavyweights like the Gates Foundation, it is likely that condoms will only improve and lose their rather last century image. Nothing has yet replaced the condom in terms of its universal efficacy so expect condoms to be around for a long time to come

Stuart Brown
Doctor of Sexual Health at the NHS Royal London Hospital & Relationship Expert. Columnist at An advocate of safe sex. Avid Arsenal fan.

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