Types of Barriers That Protect Against STDs

Person holding a bunch of condoms

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As their name implies, barrier methods provide some sort of physical protection between you and your partner during sex. In other words, they are a barrier. The most commonly used barrier is the male condom. However, there are also other barriers that can also be used to make sex safer and protect against sexually transmitted diseases

Types of Sexual Barriers

The male condom can be used to cover the penis during anal intercourse, vaginal intercourse and oral sex (fellatio). It is very effective at preventing STDs that are transmitted through bodily fluids, such as gonorrhea and HIV. It is also reasonably effective at reducing skin to skin transmission of certain diseases. However, it only protects the skin it covers. Therefore, it is still possible to transmit diseases such as herpes from uncovered, infected skin.

The female condom has similar efficacy at preventing fluid-transmitted STD to the male condom, and some men like them quite a bit. ​It also covers slightly more skin. Therefore, it may do an even better job of preventing STD transmission during vaginal intercourse. Unfortunately, female condoms with inner rings are only suitable for vaginal intercourse, not anal sex or oral sex. In addition, it is important to be careful about using female condoms correctly. If the penis is accidentally inserted outside of the condom instead of inside it, the benefits of female condom use are greatly reduced, if not eliminated.

Dental dams are squares of latex that can be either purchased or made from condoms or gloves. They are used to cover the vaginal or rectal areas during oral sex (cunnilingus) or rimming. They reduce the risk of diseases that can be transmitted through oral sex, such as herpes. Several companies even make dental dam holders that are worn like sexy underwear. These holders make using dental dams even easier during sex.

Gloves are used to cover the hands, wrists, and nails during manual penetration (i.e. fingering or fisting) of the mouth, vagina, or anus. Using gloves protects both partners. The penetrating partner is protected from the bodily fluids of the person they are penetrating. The person being penetrated is being protected from any unfortunate fomites under their partner's nails. Many viruses and bacteria can live under the nails. It's therefore very important to cover the hands during penetration. It's also a good idea to pad long fingernails with cotton balls before putting on gloves. This makes it less likely that your nails will either break through the glove or scratch your partner in an uncomfortable place.

Finger cots are like gloves, but for only a single finger. You can get them from health supply stores or make them yourself by cutting the finger off of a glove. Personally, I find that they don't stay on as well as gloves and are substantially less comfortable. However, they can be useful if your hands are very large or small and it is difficult to find latex or nitrile gloves that fit. (Gloves do come in various sizes, Furthermore, different brands are different shapes. It's not a bad idea to experiment and find a brand that you like, if you have a lot of manual sex.)

Diaphragms and cervical caps are technically barrier methods of contraception. They do put a physical barrier between semen and the cervix/uterus. However, these types of devices provide little to no protection against sexually transmitted diseases. The exceptions may be some reduction in risk of gonorrhea and chlamydia transmission from the male to the female partner since these diseases primarily infect the cervix. That said, these devices are not considered effective ways to prevent STDs. They should not be used for that purpose.

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