Male condoms – are they the right contraceptive for you?

14th December, 2022 • 6 min read

Male condoms (also called external condoms) are one of the most popular types of contraception, with about 33 million Americans using them every year. They help protect against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

External condoms are also the only male contraceptive that isn’t permanent. Find out how they work, their advantages and disadvantages, and what can make them less effective.

How does a male condom work?

A male condom is a type of barrier

contraception
– which means it stops sperm from reaching an egg and fertilizing it. Other barrier contraception methods include
female condoms
, diaphragms and caps.

Male condoms:

  • are fitted over a hard (erect) penis to collect semen when a man cums (ejaculates)
  • are made from latex, polyurethane or polyisoprene
  • come in different sizes to fit different penis lengths and widths, and in a variety of styles, textures, colors and flavors

How effective are male condoms?

If they’re used perfectly every time, male condoms can be up to 98% effective at preventing pregnancy. But with ‘typical’ use – how they’re usually used in real life – they’re about 82% effective. This means that about 18 out of 100 women who use them as contraception will get pregnant each year.

Male condoms can also significantly reduce the risk of getting a

sexually transmitted infection (STI)
. With perfect use, it’s thought that they can be 98.5% effective at preventing
HIV
transmission, and 66–75% effective against other STIs.

How to help male condoms be most effective

You can help ensure you get the best from external male condoms by:

  • making sure his penis doesn’t touch your vagina – before he puts on a condom
  • putting them on correctly – read about
    how to put on a condom
    , to cut the risk of it splitting or slipping off
  • avoiding damaging them – with sharp nails, teeth or jewelry, for example
  • only using water or silicone-based lubricants – oil-based products, such as baby oil, lotion, petroleum jelly or cooking oil, can cause some condoms to break
  • storing them away from heat and friction – avoid using your wallet, and consider a pocket in your bag or your bedside table instead
  • using non-latex condoms if you’re also using creams or pessary treatment for
    thrush
    – latex condoms can be damaged by these types of medicine

Male condom advantages

Advantages to using male condoms as contraception include:

  • they’re easy to get and simple to use
  • you only need to use them during sex – you don’t have to remember to take a pill or have a medical appointment (as you do with
    IUD
    , a contraceptive injection or the implant)
  • they protect against STIs – including HIV – whether you have vaginal or anal sex (you might want to consider using a different type for anal sex – for example, the ONE male condom was FDA-approved for use in anal sex in 2022)
  • they don’t contain hormones – so they’re suitable for use by most people
  • they can be used if you’re taking medication
  • side effects are unlikely
  • they can increase the clearance rate of
    human papillomavirus (HPV)
    and reduce the number of abnormal cervical cells in people with a cervix – if used consistently and correctly

Disadvantages of male condoms

Potential downsides of male condoms are:

Disadvantages for sex

  • you have to plan ahead, so you have them ready when you need them
  • they can break or slip off during sex
  • you or your partner may feel that putting them on interrupts sex
  • you might not enjoy the sensations of sex so much (textured or ribbed condoms are available to help with this)
  • men who sometimes struggle to stay hard during sex (
    erectile dysfunction
    can find it difficult to use a condom correctly

Disadvantages for health and relationships

  • both partners need to be motivated to use a condom every time they have sex
  • they’re less effective at preventing pregnancy than some other types of contraceptives, such as hormonal contraception or the copper IUD
  • your partner could remove a condom during sex without your consent – this is known as ‘stealthing’, which exposes you to the risk of pregnancy and STIs, and shows a total lack of respect. It’s illegal in some countries, including the UK (most US laws don’t specifically cover stealthing, other than in California)

Do all condoms protect against STIs?

Some condoms are coated in spermicide – a chemical that kills sperm. But these are being phased out and should be avoided, because spermicide doesn’t protect you against STIs such as chlamydia and HIV, and may even increase your risk of infection.

Can condoms cause UTIs in males?

Spermicide condoms may increase the risk of

urinary tract infections (UTIs)
in women, but there’s little evidence that they cause them in men.

Can males be allergic to condoms?

In short, yes. Here’s what you need to know:

  • both men and women can have an
    allergy
    to latex, which can cause genital irritation or allergic symptoms after using a latex condom
  • alternatives to latex condoms include synthetic condoms made of polyurethane, natural membrane condoms and deproteinized male latex condoms
  • reactions to spermicides are more common than reactions to latex, so check if the type of condom you’re using is pre-lubricated with spermicide (as mentioned, these should be avoided anyway)

Where can you get condoms?

  • in the US, affordable or free condoms are often available at
    Planned Parenthood health centers
    , family planning clinics, local health departments, community centers or your doctor’s office
  • you can also buy them from drug stores, supermarkets and vending machines – you don’t need a prescription and there are no age restrictions
  • in the UK, you can pick up free condoms from many health centers – find one near you with the
    NHS Find Free condoms service
  • you can also buy them from supermarkets, pharmacies, online and from vending machines, without a prescription or age restrictions

Not sure if condoms are the best choice for you? Read more about other

types of contraceptives
.

Your health questions answered

What should I do if a condom splits during sex?

“Go to a doctor or sexual health center, or speak to a pharmacist right away. You may need emergency contraception (such as the

morning-after pill
) to prevent pregnancy. And if there’s a possibility that you were exposed to HIV, you might need medicine called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)."

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.