Updated: Oct 15
What is a ‘barrier’ and why are they important?
A barrier is a device that prevents a part of your body from coming into direct contact with someone else’s. They are used to reduce both skin-to-skin contact and body fluid contact during oral, vaginal or anal sex, which are the main ways that sexually transmitted infections are spread. Barriers can also reduce the chances of unwanted pregnancy from vaginal intercourse. So using barriers consistently and correctly during sex can help keep you safer, allowing you to relax and focus on the fun stuff.
Choosing whether or not to use a barrier for a specific sex act is something that you and your partner should negotiate together. The choice will depend on whether or not pregnancy is a concern, you and your partner’s STI status and STI testing history, whether you or your partner have other sexual partners, the level of trust you have in each other, and your individual risk tolerances and comfort levels. No one should ever be pressured into having sex without barriers if they do not feel safe doing so. And it’s always safer to err on the side of caution and use a barrier if you’re not sure about the risks.
External condoms are the most commonly used and widely known type of barrier and are used mostly for intercourse. In part 1 of this guide, we'll cover the main types of external condoms, what they can and can't be used for, and how to use them. But condoms aren't the only tool for safer sex! In part 2, we'll go over several other types of barriers that can also be used for various types of sex.
What are they? External condoms are thin, stretchy pouches that are designed to cover a penis and catch semen during sex. They are also commonly called ‘male’ condoms - but we prefer the more gender-inclusive term ‘external condom’ (as not everyone who has a penis identifies as male). In the US, external condoms are regulated and must be approved by the FDA.
Why use them? Most kinds of external condoms are effective for reducing STI transmission for oral, vaginal and anal intercourse, and for reducing the chance of unwanted pregnancy during vaginal intercourse. They are especially effective for preventing STIs that are transmitted via body fluids, such as HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea. They’re a bit less effective for infections that are transmitted via skin-to-skin contact such as HPV and HSV (herpes) as they don’t cover all the skin in the genital area, but they are much more effective than using nothing at all!
You can use an external condom on sex toys to reduce STI transmission risk too, if you’re planning on sharing them. And you can even make a dental dam out of an external condom for safer cunnilingus (oral sex on a person with a vulva).
How to use: Planned parenthood has a great step-by-step picture guide that explains how to put on, use, and take off an external condom. Here are some additional tips to make things as safe as possible:
Never wear more than one condom at a time - it’s easy to assume that if wearing one condom is safe, then ‘doubling up’ with two would be even safer, but that's not the case. You actually increase the odds of condoms tearing or sliding off if you use more than one at a time.
Never reuse a condom - once you’ve finished having sex or are taking a break, throw away the old condom and start with a fresh one for round two.
Check the condom position occasionally during sex to ensure it hasn’t started to slide off or broken.
When putting a condom on, if you realize it’s inside out then don’t simply flip it over and put it back on - this increases the STI risk for your partner as now your skin has been in contact with both sides of the condom. Instead, reach for a fresh one.
Don’t be afraid to use extra lube - you can use lube on the inside and outside of a condom if that makes things easier!
Get condoms that fit you (or your toy) as well as possible. This minimizes the chance of a condom breaking or slipping off. You may need to try on a few different sizes to see what works best for you - ideally experiment on your own before partnered sexy times so there is no risk of STIs or pregnancy.
Check the expiry date of your condoms (every condom will have this printed on the wrapper) - don’t use expired condoms as they are more likely to break.
Store your condoms correctly - away from extreme heat and from anything that might crush or tear them (yes, this can happen while they are still in the wrapper).
External condoms can be made from any of several different types of material. Each has pros and cons - let’s go over the most common materials you’ll come across.
Latex is the most common material used to make external condoms
Latex condoms help protect against both STIs and pregnancy
They are not safe to use with oil-based lubricants as oil degrades latex. Only use silicone, water or hybrid lubes with latex condoms
While very safe, some people are allergic to latex and so should use external condoms made from other materials
Latex has a specific odor that some people find unpleasant
Polyisoprene is a type of plastic and is safe for those with latex allergies
Polyisoprene condoms help protect against both STIs and pregnancy
It is slightly more expensive than latex but cheaper than polyurethane
They are not safe to use with oil-based lubricants as oil degrades polyisoprene. Only use silicone, water or hybrid lubes with latex condoms
Polyisoprene feels similar to latex
Polyurethane is also a type of plastic and is safe for those with latex allergies
Polyurethane condoms help protect against both STIs and pregnancy
It is safe to use oil based lubes on polyurethane
Polyurethane is stronger, more durable and more heat resistant than latex. Polyurethane condoms can therefore be thinner than latex condoms, which may enhance sensitivity
Polyurethane has no odor
Polyurethane condoms tend to fit a little looser than other types of condoms, which may be more comfortable but also increases the likelihood of the condom coming off during sex
Polyurethane condoms are more expensive than other types
Want to try polyurethane condoms? We like Trojan Supra Bare Skin
Lambskin condoms are actually made of the intestinal lining of sheep, and have been around much longer than other types of condoms
Lambskin condoms have large (but still microscopic) pores and may not provide as much protection against STIs - they are only known to provide protection against unwanted pregnancy
Lambskin condoms are safe to use with oil-based lubes
Lambskin condoms are thinner than other types of condom and transfer body heat better, allowing for greater sensation than other types of condom
Trojan Naturalamb lambskin condoms come with a drawstring at the base for a safer fit
Other things to consider when choosing an external condom:
As we mentioned above, it’s important to use condoms that fit well. Condom length, width and shape are all factors that affect fit. Union condoms have three width varieties - snug, standard and max - that are also each shaped differently.
Condom thickness is also something to consider: while the FDA regulates the minimum thickness condoms can be (0.03mm, if you’re interested), condoms can and do come in a range of material thicknesses. As far as we know, this has no effect on safety - every condom is individually tested to ensure it meets FDA requirements. Some people prefer thinner condoms because it increases sensitivity, whereas others prefer thicker ones to reduce sensitivity and help with premature ejaculation.
Many condoms come lubricated out of the wrapper, typically with either a water based or a silicone based lube. This makes them easier to put on and use, but you’ll want to be sure you’re using a condom with a body-safe lubricant. And if you have sensitive bits, you might want to consider using unlubricated condoms like Trojan’s non lubricated ENZ or Lifestyles non lubricated and pairing it with a lube you love.
Watch out for condoms that are coated with spermicides such as nonoxynol-9. As we discuss in our lube guide, spermicides are irritating for many and significantly increase the risk of HIV transmission.
Condoms can also have different textures such as ribs or dots. These are designed to increase sensation, especially for the person being penetrated. Some people love them, others don’t notice them - but they don’t affect the safety or efficacy of the condom, so they’re totally optional.
Flavored condoms are designed to make condoms taste better during oral sex. Flavoring is added to the lubricant that comes on the condom, typically using glucose (sugar) or glycerin. Sugar can cause vaginal yeast infections and glycerin is a common irritant, so beware of lubes flavored with these ingredients. Better yet - buy unlubricated condoms and add your own body-safe flavored lube such as one from the Sliquid Swirl range.
Read on for part 2 of our barriers guide to learn about other types of safer sex barriers.