What You Should Know When Buying Condoms

Smart Tips For Choosing (and Using) This Simple Form of Birth Control

How to Buy Condoms
Buying Condoms. CatLane/Getty Images

 Condoms, more formerly known as prophylactics, are the simplest form of birth control, but buying them can seem daunting. There are dozens of styles and brands, for example. And you have to consider what you'll be using them for: Safe sex? Birth control? Both? Neither? After all, there are condoms that are designed just for fun. Besides, it's easy to get distracted when you're buying condoms—you may feel self-conscious and want to hurry things along without taking care to find what you really need. So before you go to the store or start shopping online, check out this guide to choosing and using condoms. It should make it simple to find exactly what type you need.

Buying Condoms for Safe Sex

Condoms are between 82 percent to 98 percent effective against pregnancy. This means that with typical use, about 18 out of every 100 women whose partners use condoms for one year will get pregnant. But when it comes to preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs), you have to be a little picky about the material a condom is made of. Latex, polyurethane, and any other non-latex condom will provide protection from infection, but lambskin condoms will not.

Condom Discussions

Like anything related to sex, it's important that you and your partner are on the same page. This applies to using condoms.  Talk it through with your partner. If either of you has an allergy to latex, for instance, you'll obviously need to steer clear of latex condoms. Do you both expect to use condoms as your sole method of birth control, or will they be a backup method to hormonal option, such as the pill or the patch?

One thing that sometimes comes up when a couple discusses birth control or safe sex is a man's reluctance to use a condom. If you have a male partner who's balking at the idea, listen to his reasons and be prepared to make a case for why it's important to you that he use a condom.

Are Polyurethane Condoms as Effective as Latex Ones?

In lab tests, latex and polyurethane condoms have been shown to be equally effective as barriers to sperm and to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)—if they're each used exactly as prescribed. But most people use condoms inconsistently or incorrectly, what's known as "typical use." And with typical use, latex condoms may provide more protection than polyurethane ones. One reason for this is that although polyurethane condoms are thinner, stronger, and more resistant to deterioration, they're less elastic and don't fit as snugly as latex condoms, making them slightly more likely to break or slip off.

Know How to Use Condoms

Start by making sure you have the right size. One common condom myth is that a woman is more protected from getting pregnant the tighter her partner's condom is, but in fact, a too-small condom can easily break. One that's too big could fall off. For these reasons, proper fit is also important for protection from infection.

Be sure to put on the condom early—before the penis comes into contact with the vagina (or anus or mouth). It should be taken off as soon as ejaculation happens—but carefully so the semen doesn't leak.

Because condoms deteriorate over time, make sure any you use have not expired. If you stock up on condoms, keep them in a cool, dry place. If they're exposed to heat, air, or sunlight for long periods they can lose effectiveness. And if you open a condom and find that it's discolored, brittle, or sticky, toss it and get a fresh one.

What Condom to Choose?

Condoms can be regular shaped, form-fitting, or flared. The tips can differ as well: plain, reservoir, spiral, over-size. Condoms come in regular and thick strengths, and both are equally effective. There is no standard length for condoms, but there’s about a 1.5 centimeter difference in width between the smallest and largest condom. Condoms also can have various textures, colors, and flavors. So even though broadly speaking all condoms work in basically the same way, there's enough variety among them that you may need to experiment with a few types before you find "the perfect condom."

To Lubricate or Not to Lubricate

Some condoms are pre-lubricated, some are not. Lubricated condoms are less prone to breaking and they can make sex more comfortable. Of course, if for some reason you prefer a non-lubricated condom, you can use a lube of your choice, allowing you to have more control over the sensations you and your partner feel. If you do this and are using a latex condom, make sure the lube is water- or silicon-based. Lubes made of oil or petroleum (like baby oil or Vaseline) can make a condom less effective.

Here's a fun tip: Of course the obvious way to use lube is to slather it on the outside of the condom. But some men find that putting a small drop inside the tip of the condom increases pleasure.

The Fun and Sexy Side to Condoms

Novelty condoms can be fun to buy, and some are even approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for contraception, but that's not always the case so be sure to read the label. And by the way, you can try wearing a regular condom under a novelty one. Here are few popular types of novelty condoms:

  • Flavored condoms can add a yummy dimension to oral sex (and many are FDA-approved for pregnancy protection). If using these for vaginal sex, look for brands that are sugar-free since the sugar may cause a yeast infection.
  • Edible condoms are rolled on, and then can be eaten off.
  • French tickler condoms have soft, rubber tips that tickle the inner walls of the vagina.

Condoms and Spermicide

Spermicide does exactly what the name suggests: It kills sperm. Most spermicides can be used with condoms for even greater pregnancy protection. In fact, some condoms come lubricated with a spermicide called nonoxynol-9 (N-9) but these shouldn't be used frequently. N-9 can cause inflammation of the vagina and cervix and can kill layers of cells, making a woman more susceptible to infection and also making it easier for her to transmit an STI to her partner. Also, allergic reactions to N-9 may cause sores that allow HIV to spread more easily. If you’re having a lot of sex, it's best to use condoms that don’t contain N-9.

Now, You're Ready to Buy Condoms!

Don't get stressed out over shopping for condoms. You may feel that the cashier is judging you, but when you think about it, he or she sells condoms all the time. Your decision to purchase them means that you are worthy of respect—it shows maturity and that you care enough about yourself and your partner. The bottom line is condoms aren’t really all that different. You may find that you develop a preference for a certain brand, but you can't go wrong if you buy a plain lubricated condom.

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