Safer condom use

Condoms greatly reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Learn how to protect your health by practicing safer sex.

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What are the benefits of condoms?

A condom is a protective barrier for use during sex. When used properly, it provides effective protection against many sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy. This is done by providing a protective barrier from skin-to-skin contact and preventing the exchange of bodily fluids (such as semen). Other contraceptives do not protect against STIs or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Condoms help prevent pregnancy when used as intended by the manufacturer. But condoms sometimes fail because of improper use or the material gets damaged. Pregnancy happens in about 10% of cases.

What is effective condom use?

You can reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy or STIs by following these steps for effective condom use:

  • Store latex condoms at room temperature and out of direct sunlight. Heat weakens the latex.
  • Check the expiry date on the package. Avoid using expired condoms because their effectiveness cannot be guaranteed.
  • Follow the directions on the package.

What reduces the effectiveness of condoms?

Some substances can weaken a condom. Maintain condom effectiveness by being aware of the following:

  • Using two condoms at the same time increases the risk of a latex condom breaking.
  • If you or your partner is allergic to latex, use polyurethane or natural membrane condoms.
  • Petroleum or oil-based lubricants should not be used with latex condoms. These substances weaken the latex and can lead to breakage.
    • Oil-based lubricants can be used with some synthetic condoms. Always read lubricant labels to be sure it is safe to use with the type of condom you have chosen.
  • Some medications intended for vaginal use (like yeast infection treatments) can weaken latex condoms. Treatments that contain estrogen are especially damaging to latex condoms.

If you think a batch of condoms may be defective, report your concerns to your Regional Product Safety Office. You can also report problems through the toll free Inspectorate Hotline at 1-800-267-9675.

What if the condom breaks during or after use?

If the condom breaks, tears or slips off during sex, there may be a chance that either partner has been exposed to an STI. Discuss your concerns with a health care provider.

If your partner is living with HIV, or if their HIV status is unknown, you should seek immediate medical advice as there is medication that can prevent HIV infection from taking hold if taken within 72 hours.

If you are concerned about pregnancy, you may want to buy Plan B, an emergency contraceptive, available as an over-the-counter drug across Canada, except in Quebec where you will need a prescription. It should be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

What are the types of condoms?

Condoms are available for both men and women, and come in many sizes, shapes, colors and textures. Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

Condoms are medical devices and as such, their testing, packaging and labelling are regulated by Health Canada.

Male Condoms

A male condom covers the penis to create a protective barrier and prevent the exchange of bodily fluids between sex partners.

When used properly, male condoms have a breakage rate of about 1%. Leaks are even rarer.

However, condoms can break if you are not using the right size. Packages are labelled by width size. A condom that is too large can slip off. But if it is too tight, it is more likely to break.

Condom material is also important when making the right selection to suit your needs. Check out the different condom choices below.

Latex condoms

Condoms made from latex rubber are the type most commonly used. But they may cause skin irritation or an allergic reaction for some people.

If you are allergic to latex, use polyurethane or natural membrane condoms.

Synthetic polymer condoms

Synthetic polymer condoms are usually made of polyurethane (similar to latex). This material is effective in preventing pregnancy and STIs. This type of condom is a good option for people who are allergic to latex. Lubricants will not weaken this type of condom.

Natural membrane condoms

Natural membrane condoms are made from the intestinal lining of sheep. Natural membrane condoms contain microscopic holes. The holes are small enough to prevent semen from getting through the barrier and stop the transmission of certain bacterial STIs. But the holes are too large to prevent the spread of viral infections like hepatitis (HCV) and HIV.

Spermicidally lubricated condoms

Spermicidally lubricated condoms are coated with a lubricant containing nonoxynol-9 (N-9). This substance is intended to kill sperm and further reduce the risk of pregnancy.

But N-9 does not effectively protect against HIV or other STIs. N-9 may even increase the risk of infection by irritating the tissue inside the vagina or rectum, making them more vulnerable to infection. As a result, young women may experience urinary tract infections.

Because of this increased risk of infection, spermicidally lubricated condoms should be avoided for anal sex. They do not provide any additional protection when used with another form of birth control.

Still, this form of condom is better than no condom at all.

Female Condoms

A female condom is a liner worn in the vagina or anus to prevent semen from entering a woman's body. Female condoms are usually made of polyurethane or latex. Female condoms are 95% effective when used correctly and consistently for preventing pregnancy and STIs, including HIV.

Novelty Condoms

Novelty condoms should not be confused with condoms used to prevent pregnancy or infections. Novelty items cannot be sold for the prevention of disease or pregnancy.

Novelty condoms should not be used with a latex condom. This is because some novelty items are made of materials that weaken latex.

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