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If you have anal, oral, or vaginal sex, the best way to prevent STDs is using barriers like condoms and dams. Lube can also help make sex safer (and better!).

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Do condoms prevent STDs and make sex safer?

They sure can help! Condoms are one of the best ways to help prevent STDs. (And bonus! They help prevent pregnancy, too.) There are two kinds of condoms: regular condoms fit snugly on the penis. Internal condoms (also called female condoms) are worn inside the vagina or anus.

Never use a regular condom with a internal condom at the same time — just use one or the other.

Condoms and internal condoms put a barrier between the penis and the other person’s anus, vagina, or mouth. This barrier protects both partners by keeping fluids that can carry infections (like semen and vaginal fluids) out of the other person’s genitals.

By covering the penis or inside of the vagina or anus, condoms and internal condoms also prevent skin-to-skin touching that can spread certain STDs (like herpes and genital warts). But condoms may not work as well to prevent skin-to-skin STDs, because they don’t cover every body part that can be infected (like the scrotum or labia).

Put on a condom before your penis even touches your partner’s mouth or genitals, or they won’t work as well to prevent STDs.

Most condoms are made from latex, a kind of rubber. There are also condoms made out of thin, soft plastics like polyurethane, polyisoprene, and nitrile. Internal condoms are made from nitrile, too. Plastic condoms are great for people who have latex allergies or sensitivities.

Condoms made of lambskin or other animal membranes DO NOT protect against HIV or other STDs — they only help to prevent pregnancy. Only latex or plastic condoms and internal condoms help stop STDs.

It’s also a good idea to use condoms on sex toys if you share them with other people (use a new condom any time a new person uses it), to avoid swapping body fluids that can carry STDs.

Condoms without spermicide are better at preventing STDs than spermicidal condoms. If you use spermicide many times a day, it may make you more likely to get an STD. That’s because nonoxynyl-9 (a chemical in most spermicides) can irritate your skin, which can make it easier for infections to get in your body.

Do dental dams make oral sex safer?

Yes indeed! Dental dams — aka “dams” for short — are thin, square pieces of latex that help prevent STDs during oral sex on a vulva or anus. Dams protect you by keeping vaginal fluids out of your mouth, and preventing skin-to-skin contact between your mouth and a vulva or anus. They also protect you during oral-to-anal sex from germs that can cause digestive infections.

Dams are easy to use. You lay them over a vulva and/or anus, and then do your thing. You don’t need to stretch the dam taut or press it tight against the skin — just hold it gently in place. Dams may even cling to your body on their own because of vaginal moisture or static.

Dams can sometimes be hard to find in stores. If you don’t have a dam handy, you can cut open a condom and lay it flat on your partner’s vulva or anus.

(By the way, they’re called dental dams because dentists also sometimes use them to protect their patient’s mouth during dental work.)

Can I use lubricant to make sex safer?

This is a great idea! Many people don’t realize that lube can make sex safer AND increase comfort and pleasure at the same time.

The friction that happens when you rub your genitals together during sex can irritate your skin, or even cause small tears in your sensitive genital skin that make it easier for STDs to get into your body. Friction also makes condoms break more easily. Lube keeps sex nice and slippery, cutting down on the friction and leading to safer and more comfortable sex.  

Using lube doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or your partner. Things like medicine, hormonal changes, stress, and age can change the way your vagina lubricates (gets wet) during sex. Lots of people use an extra lubricant just because they like the way it feels.  

It’s especially important to use lube if you have anal sex. Unlike a vagina, your anus can’t lubricate itself at all. Without lube, anal sex can be super painful and even dangerous. Dry anal sex leads to irritation and tears in your anus and rectum, putting you at a higher risk for STDs like HIV.

Most condoms come pre-lubricated, but adding more lube helps condoms feel extra good and keeps them from breaking. Put a few drops on the head of your penis or inside the tip of your condom before you roll it on, and/or spread lube on the outside of the condom once you’re wearing it.

Always make sure your lube is safe to use with condoms. This means only using water-based or silicone lube with latex or polyisoprene condoms — lube with oil in it can break down latex and polyisoprene and cause condoms to tear. It’s also a bad idea to use lotions, body oils, cooking oils, or Vaseline as sexual lubricants, because they can irritate your genitals and break condoms. Sexual lubricants that you get in the condom aisle at the drugstore are usually safe to use with condoms. You can always read the package or directions, just to be sure.

Spermicide can make your chances of getting an STD a little higher, especially if you’re using it many times a day, so it’s better to use lube that doesn’t have spermicide in it. Spermicide usually has an ingredient called nonoxynyl-9 that can irritate the skin in your anus or vagina, which can make it easier for you to get an infection like an STD.

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