Barrier Methods of Birth Control

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Quick GuideChoosing Your Birth Control Method

Choosing Your Birth Control Method

Male condom

Male condoms are far more common than female condoms. A male condom is a thin sheath that is worn over the man's penis during sexual intercourse. The condom collects sperm so that it is not released into the vagina. Condoms are known as rubbers, sheaths, prophylactics, and many other names.

Condoms are made from a variety of materials including latex, rubber, plastic polyurethane, and animal tissue. They are also available in a variety of sizes, colors, styles, and thicknesses. They may be dry, lubricated, or treated with a spermicide. Although convenient, a wallet is not the best place to store condoms. Condoms last longer when they are stored under less moist conditions. In general, condoms have a shelf life of about five years if stored unopened in a cool, dry place.

A condom must be the correct size and fit the man's erect penis properly. There should be 1/2 inch (about 1.25 cm) at the tip of the condom to provide a space for the sperm-filled semen to collect. Some condoms have this feature built in.

Prior to any contact between the penis and the vagina, the condom is unrolled over the erect penis, ensuring the condom is not turned backwards or inside out. Some condoms come pre-lubricated. If additional lubrication is desired, a water-based product should be used. Spermicides may be used as lubricants with condoms and may thus increase the efficacy of the condom. Oil-based products such as Vaseline, vaginal creams, or mineral oil, may damage the condom and should never be used.

There is an obvious problem of lack of barrier protection if the condom breaks, slips, or comes off the penis. Condoms are quality controlled in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for manufacturing defects that could result in breakage. Condom failure can also be caused by the user and/or his partner. For example, long fingernails or jewelry can tear condoms.

Immediately after ejaculation, the condom should be removed from the vagina. It should be held firmly in place at the base of his penis, as it is withdrawn from the vagina. Care must be taken not to spill any of the ejaculate from the condom.

Each condom must be discarded after a single use. A new condom must be used for the next act of intercourse. Male condoms are not reusable.

Condoms can be purchased over-the-counter (OTC) without a prescription. Most of those on the market are made of latex. The estimated effectiveness of the latex condom is 87% to 90% or 10 to 13 pregnancies/100 women per year of sexual activity.

About 1% to 3% of people are allergic to latex. In such cases, they may be able to use condoms made of polyurethane, a type of plastic, can often be used. However, polyurethane condoms may break more easily than latex condoms and they do not protect against sexually transmitted infections (sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs).

Latex condoms afford the maximum protection against sexually transmitted infections including HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and herpes virus. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), consistent and correct usage of latex condoms:

Animal membrane condoms, made from the intestines of sheep, when used with contraceptive foam, can be effective in preventing pregnancy, but they may not provide adequate protection against all sexually transmitted infections. This is because the pores in the animal tissue permit small organisms such as viruses to pass through.

The most frequent complaint lodged regarding condoms is that their usage decreases sexual pleasure for the male. This is an unfortunate attitude because male condoms are an effective, acceptable, inexpensive, and safe method of birth control.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/10/2016

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