When it comes to using condoms, you probably have questions. Lots of questions, like: Can you get pregnant using a condom even if it doesn’t break? And: Can sperm leak out the base of a condom? Yep, pretty sexy stuff. But it’s OK to have those questions, because the more you know about how to use condoms, the more likely you are to use them correctly.
You might think condoms are the ultimate defender against every sexually transmitted infection, the trusty goalkeeper blocking each sperm trying to get you pregnant—and while they’re pretty much the best barrier protection out there, the truth is, they’re not 100 percent effective. While condoms can play a key role in protecting you, they’re not the be-all and end-all of safe sex.
“Condoms are the number one reason I get phone calls from friends in the middle of the night,” fertility expert and reproductive endocrinologist Brian A. Levine, M.D., and New York practice director for the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, tells SELF. Chalk it up to the operational hazards of being a board-certified ob/gyn. Here, he and other docs go over the most common mistakes people make when using condoms—so hopefully you’ll never make them again.
1. Mistake: You assume that condoms are the best birth control out there.
“Condoms are a great form of birth control, but they’re not perfect,” says Dr. Levine. Even with perfect use, condoms are 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By the way, “perfect use” in this case means using condoms consistently and correctly (which we’ll talk about more in a bit). With typical use (like when you put it on incorrectly, don’t use it the whole time, or don’t use it every time), the failure rate goes up to 18 percent. That means that in a given year, 18 out of 100 people will get pregnant while using condoms with typical use, versus just 2 out of 100 who use condoms with perfect use.
If you don’t want a baby right now, Dr. Levine recommends using condoms in tandem with another form of birth control, like the pill or an IUD for more thorough coverage. Because yes, you can get pregnant using a condom even if it doesn’t break.
2. Mistake: You skip out on STI tests, because you’ve been using condoms regularly.
When it comes to protecting against STIs, condoms are good but not perfect. While they can potentially help you avoid infections like gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis A and B, and HIV, they’re not always successful barriers against other STIs. The reason: Not all STIs are spread through fluids (like semen or vaginal secretions), which means you could still contract an STI via skin-to-skin contact. Here are the STIs that can be spread even if your partner wears a condom, as SELF previously reported:
- Herpes: Herpes lesions can show on areas of skin that a condom can’t cover—if you come in contact with that area, transmission could occur.
- HPV: This is the most common STI, and it can be passed with skin-to-skin contact (even if you don’t have symptoms like genital warts).
- Molluscum: This little-known STI causes tiny bumps on the skin that may itch or feel tender.
- Pubic lice (crabs): Though this STI (which happens when lice lay eggs that live in public hair) is less common these days, you can still catch it from an infected partner.
- Syphilis: If your partner has chancres (firm, round sores) that aren’t covered by the condom, the infection can spread to you.
This does not mean that you should just say “ugh, screw it” and forget the condom altogether. Condoms are still our best defense against STIs. Just keep in mind that it’s also important to keep an eye out for any new symptoms and to stay on top of regular STI testing (since many infections can be totally symptomless).
3. Mistake: You reuse a condom.
Recently, the CDC tweeted a warning to people: Don’t wash or reuse condoms! It might seem obvious but apparently, this is a thing, and it is not a good idea, Alyssa Dweck, M.D., a gynecologist in Westchester, New York, and assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, tells SELF. “This is not a good habit to get into,” she says.
“A used condom cannot be considered reliable when it comes to pregnancy and STD prevention,” she says. Condoms should only be used once, for each sex act (that means if you switch from vaginal sex to anal, you need a fresh condom). If cost or access is an issue, go to CondomFinder.org, to learn where you can get free condoms in your area.
4. Mistake: You use a condom that’s too small or too big.
Penises come in all shapes and sizes, and so do condoms. “If you don’t have a properly-fitting condom, you don’t have the contraceptive benefit of using it,” says Dr. Levine. Here’s why this matters: A too-tight condom might break more easily, and a too-big condom might come off too easily. When the whole point is to create a barrier strong enough to withstand ejaculate, fit is kind of an issue. So, if your partner is using a condom that is clearly not the right size, say something. Yes, it can be an awkward conversation to have, but your safety matters more. Sex can already be weird, so a little more weirdness isn’t going to kill anyone. Hopefully you’re able to discuss this kind of stuff with anyone who gets access to your awesome body.
5. Mistake: You use a condom that’s been stored in a wallet.
Throw it out and grab a new one. It might seem like a convenient move (hey, you want to be prepared, right?) but this isn’t really the safest place for something that has this important of a job. “Someone constantly sitting on the condom and heating it up breaks down its protective benefit,” says Dr. Levine.
6. Mistake: You use an expired condom.
“The expiration date is there for a reason,” says Dr. Dweck. “Some condoms have spermicide or other ingredients that break down over time and don’t work as well. If a condom has expired, you can assume it won’t be as safe or effective as one that hasn’t.” So before you wrap it up, be sure to check the label.
7. Mistake: You put it on inside out.
You’ll know because the condom will resist unrolling down the penis as opposed to flawlessly unfurling itself. Don’t feel bad if you make this mistake! Even though it was easy to put a condom on a banana in sex-ed (or, if you never got to try that brilliant exercise, you’ve probably seen how simple it looks in movies), that’s not necessarily true to life. “I have yet to find anyone who has a penis that looks like a banana,” says Dr. Levine. Same, same.
That’s why paying close attention to any signs of struggle is key, whether you’re putting the condom on a penis or a sex toy. “People try to force it down when this happens,” says Dr. Levine. But a condom resisting is a sign something’s wrong, which means you should remove it and get a new one (yes, really, you’ll want to toss the one you tried to put on inside out if it touched someone’s genitals).
8. Mistake: You play “just the tip” sans protection.
Ah, just the tip, the riskiest part of foreplay if you’re not wearing a condom. Here’s why this isn’t a great idea. For starters, it’s unlikely but theoretically possible to still get pregnant this way. While there may not be sperm in precum, it’s technically possible for precum to carry out some live sperm hanging out in the urethra. (You can read more about that here.) So, if you’re using only condoms to avoid getting pregnant, every penis that enters your vagina should have a rubber on it. Period. And keep in mind that even if you’re using another method of contraception, condoms can only protect you from STIs when they’re on (this stands for oral sex, too!). And, yes, STIs can be transmitted from just the tip.
9. Mistake: You forget to pinch the tip of the condom.
That little reservoir tip at the top of the condom isn’t just for decoration, although it would be pretty cute if it were. “If you don’t pinch the tip, after the man ejaculates pressure can cause it to leak out the sides,” says Dr. Levine. Yep, sperm can leak out the base of the condom this way. Apparently Hannah’s freakout on Girls wasn’t totally unwarranted (because you know there’s no way Adam ever remembered to pinch the tip).
10. Mistake: You rely on two condoms for “extra” safety.
Less can actually be more when it comes to protection. Using one condom helps cover your safe-sex bases. The friction of two against each other just makes each one more likely to break, says Dr. Levine.
11. Mistake: You think natural condoms are the same as latex ones.
If latex isn’t your thing, there are condoms out there made of lambskin and various natural ingredients. Just be aware that they’re different from latex condoms in more than name. “They don’t offer the same protection against diseases,” says Dr. Levine. That’s because they tend to be more porous than latex kinds, so read up on the details before buying a pack.
12. Mistake: You don’t change condoms when necessary.
If you’re switching from anal sex to vaginal, it’s time for a condom change. “You don’t want to introduce bacteria from the rectum into the vagina,” says Dr. Levine. Another crucial time to get a new condom is when your partner already ejaculated, but you’re both down for round two. Even if he doesn’t get fully flaccid, there’s a chance any softening of his penis before you start again could leave room for semen to slip out. It’s also smart to change one after oral sex, in case your teeth grazed the condom without either of you noticing.
13. Mistake: You snuggle post-orgasm while your partner is still inside you.
Can sperm leak out the base of a condom? Yep, especially if your partner stays inside you too long. “As nice as it would be to have a cuddle session, realize that if you do so without withdrawing first, that condom is going to fall off the penis,” says Dr, Levine. “All that’s going to do is deposit all of those little boys exactly where you don’t want them.” BRB, screaming forever.
There’s also the issue that if your partner goes flaccid then pulls out later, the condom can stay inside you without either of you noticing. You may be skeptical, like, “Of course I would realize if they didn’t have the condom on when they pulled out!” And in your right mind, you might. But sometimes the lights are off, you’re sleepy, you’ve been drinking, or you’re just not really paying attention. The point is, take off the condom, then cuddle.
14. Mistake: You don’t use enough lube.
Sometimes if there’s a little too much friction, or if you and your partner are switching positions a lot, there’s a possibility that the condom might break. Even though many are already lubricated, adding some more lube can help avoid this problem.
15. Mistake: You use the wrong kind of lube.
Repeat after us: Do not use oil-based on lubes with latex condoms. That’s because the oil can actually degrade the latex, says Dr. Levine. Well, no one wants that. Look for water- or silicone-based options instead of oil-based ones.
16. Mistake: You don’t have your own stash of condoms.
Listen, it makes sense if you’d prefer the penis-haver in the situation to take care of the condom situation, but there are also benefits to buying your own. For starters, you can make sure you have on hand a condom that you like and that you know doesn’t irritate you. It’s also just good to have a backup in case your partner doesn’t have one.
17. Mistake: You think it’s NBD if your partner only wears a condom some of the time.
It may seem obvious, but in order for condoms to work, they need to be worn the entire time you have sex—every single time. Shockingly, only 59 percent of people who used condoms with another form of birth control kept the rubber on the entire time, according to a study published in the journal Contraception. Some people (35 percent) started intercourse without a condom and others (6 percent) removed the condom during sex. This is not a good idea for all of the reasons we’ve already mentioned above. So, make sure your partner puts the condom on before you start having sex—and that they keep it on until you’re both finished.
18. Mistake: You don’t use a condom for oral sex.
Unless you and your partner have both been recently tested and are in the clear, you technically should be using some form of protection during oral sex. “You can transmit all kinds of STDs through oral-genital contact, so you should use condoms or dental dams depending on who’s giving [oral sex] to who,” says Dr. Dweck.
19. Mistake: You would never even consider an internal condom.
Internal condoms, also known as female condoms, have come a long way and are totally worth trying, says Dr. Dweck. “They’re very effective, and the new and improved models aren’t as noisy,” she explains. “I once had a patient tell me using it sounded like opening a bag of M&M’s in a quiet movie theater. The noise used to be a big deterrent for women but the new models are much better.” They’re especially great for people who want more control over their sexual experience or whose partners don’t like using external condoms (perhaps because of erectile dysfunction or another issue). That said, they can be a little cumbersome to use at first but most people get used to insertion with practice, says Dr. Dweck.