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What is a condom?

Condoms are thin, stretchy pouches that you wear on your penis during sex. Condoms provide great protection from both pregnancy and STDs. They’re easy to use and easy to get.

What’s a condom and how does it work?

Condoms are small, thin pouches that cover your penis during sex and collect semen (cum). Condoms prevent pregnancy by stopping sperm from getting into the vagina, so sperm can’t meet up with an egg. Some types of condoms also help prevent STDs.

There are 3 types of condoms: latex condoms, plastic (non latex) condoms, and lambskin (animal skin) condoms.

  • Latex condoms

    • Latex condoms are made from rubber. 

    • Latex condoms are the most common type of condom.

    • Latex condoms help protect against both pregnancy and STDs.

    • Only use water-based or silicone lube with latex condoms — don’t use anything with oil, because oil can damage latex condoms.

  • Plastic condoms (AKA non latex condoms or latex free condoms)

    • Plastic/non latex condoms are made from plastics like polyurethane, nitrile, or polyisoprene.

    • Plastic/non latex condoms are safe for people with latex allergies or sensitivities.

    • Plastic/non latex condoms help protect against both pregnancy and STDs.

    • You can use water-based and silicone lube with any kind of plastic condom. You can generally use oil-based lubes with plastic condoms. If you’re not sure whether your lube is safe to use with your condoms, check the directions on the condom package.

  • Lambskin condoms (aka animal skin condoms)

    • Lambskin condoms are made from the lining of animal intestines (usually sheep).

    • Lambskin condoms only help protect against pregnancy — they don’t prevent STDs.

    • Lambskin condoms are safe for people who are allergic or sensitive to latex.

    • You can use any kind of lube, including oils, with lambskin condoms.

Along with helping to prevent pregnancy, latex and plastic condoms also help prevent STDs by covering the penis — this prevents contact with semen and vaginal fluids, and limits skin-to-skin contact that can spread sexually transmitted infections. Lambskin condoms do NOT protect against STDs, because there are tiny holes in the lambskin that are small enough to block sperm but big enough to let bacteria and viruses through. So it’s best to use latex or plastic condoms to help prevent both STDs and pregnancy.

Do condoms help protect against STDs?

Yes! Using condoms every time you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex is the best way to reduce your chances of getting or spreading sexually transmitted infections. Condoms protect you and your partners from STDs by preventing contact with bodily fluids (like semen and vaginal fluids) that can carry infections. And because condoms cover your penis, they help protect against certain STDs like herpes and genital warts that are spread through skin-to-skin contact (but they’re somewhat less effective with these because they don’t cover all your skin).

Pro-tip: if you cut a condom up the side, you can open it out and put it over the vulva for safer oral sex there. Condoms are helpful for everyone!

Condoms are the only type of birth control out there that also help protect against STDs. So even if you’re using another form of birth control (like the pill), it’s a good idea to also use condoms to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

Keep in mind that condoms made of lambskin or other animal membranes DO NOT protect against STDs — they only prevent pregnancy. Only synthetic condoms (latex or plastic) prevent the spread of STDs.

More questions from patients:

Do you need a condom for oral sex?

The main ways people get STDs are from vaginal and anal sex, but it’s possible to get some infections from oral sex. STDs that can infect your lips, mouth, and throat include herpes, HPV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and hepatitis B

So if you’re trying to get the most STD protection possible during sexual contact, you can use condoms during oral sex on a penis, and dams during oral sex on a vulva and/or anus. Condoms and dams help protect both you and your partner from skin-to-skin contact and sexual fluids that can spread STDs.

You can use any latex or plastic (latex-free) condom for oral sex on a penis. Some people prefer plastic condoms for oral sex so they don’t have to taste latex, or unlubricated condoms so they don’t get lube in their mouths. There are flavored condoms that are made for oral sex, and you can also add flavored lube to any plastic or latex condom. If you have a vagina, avoid using flavored products for vaginal or anal sex because they can lead to irritation, yeast infections, or bacterial vaginosis. And don’t use animal skin (aka lambskin) condoms because they only help prevent pregnancy, not STDs. 

Dams can be harder to find than condoms. You can buy dams online, or in some sex shops or drug stores. You may also be able to find them at some sexual health centers, like your local Planned Parenthood. You can also make a dam by cutting open a condom or internal condom — just cut the tip off so it’s open at both ends, cut the condom from the bottom to the top, open it up, and lay it over your partner’s vulva and/or anus.

Read more about safer sex.

Do condoms protect against all STDs?

Condoms help protect against all STDs, but they provide more protection from some STDs than others.

There are lots of different STDs. Some are carried in body fluids like semen (cum), vaginal fluids, and blood — these include HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B, and trichomoniasis. Others can be passed from skin-to-skin touching with an infected body area, like your mouth or genitals — these include herpes, HPV and genital warts, syphilis, public lice (crabs), and scabies.

If you use condoms correctly, they work very well to prevent STDs that are carried in body fluids. But condoms are a little less effective at preventing skin-to-skin STDs — that’s because these infections can sometimes live on areas of the body that condoms don’t block, like the scrotum, upper thighs, buttocks (butt cheeks), and labia. For example, if someone has herpes sores or genital warts on their scrotum or around the base of their penis where a condom doesn’t reach, they could give the infection to their partner during sex.

This may sound scary, but it’s important to remember that most skin-to-skin STDs aren’t dangerous and don’t cause serious health problems. And all STDs can be treated or managed with medication — that’s why STD testing is so important, so you can get treatment right away if you do happen to have an STD.

The only way to be 100% sure you’ll never get an STD is to never have sexual contact with another person — but most people have sex at some point in their lives. And some protection is definitely better than nothing. So if you’re going to be sexually active, using condoms is the best way to help prevent STDs and protect yourself and your partner. 

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Condom

  • 85% effective

  • Costs around $2 per condom, but can be $0

  • No prescription required

  • Put it on before sex

Condoms help protect you from STDs. Use another birth control method with your condom for even more pregnancy preventing power.
See All Methods

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