Safer condom use

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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 used during sex. When used properly, it provides effective protection against many sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBI) and pregnancy. This is done by providing a protective barrier over skin and mucous membranes, and by preventing the exchange of bodily fluids (such as semen). Other contraceptives do not protect against STBBI.

Condoms help prevent pregnancy when used as intended by the manufacturer. But condoms sometimes fail because of improper use or damage. With typical use, condoms can prevent pregnancy in about 80% of cases.

What is effective condom use?

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

  • Store latex condoms at room temperature and out of direct sunlight.
  • Check the expiry date on the package. Avoid using expired condoms because their effectiveness cannot be guaranteed.
  • Use the right type of lubricant to reduce the chances of a breakage.
  • Follow the directions on the package.
  • Use a new condom with each new act of sex.

What reduces the effectiveness of condoms?

Certain situations can weaken a condom and make it more likely to break. Be aware of the following situations that can make condoms less effective:

  • Using two condoms at the same time increases the risk of a condom breaking.
  • Using the wrong type of lubricant:
    • 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.
  • Exposure to heat and light during storage.
  • Some medications intended for vaginal use (like yeast infection treatments) can weaken latex condoms. Treatments that contain estrogen are especially damaging to latex condoms.
  • Natural membrane condoms, while effective for pregnancy prevention, are not effective for STBBI prevention.

Condoms are medical devices and as such, their testing, packaging and labelling are regulated by Health Canada. If you think a batch of condoms may be defective, report your concerns to Health Canada.

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 STBBI. Discuss your concerns with a health care provider.

If your partner is living with HIV and has a detectable viral load, 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 consider taking an emergency contraceptive such as the morning after pill, available as an over-the-counter drug across Canada, except in Quebec where you will need a prescription. It should be taken as soon as possible within 72 hours of unprotected sex. There are also other types of emergency contraception available, which offer different effectiveness depending on your situation. Consult a health care provider or pharmacist to discuss your options.

What are the types of condoms?

There are different types of condoms that come in many sizes, shapes, colors and textures. Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

External Condoms

External condoms cover the penis to create a protective barrier and prevent the exchange of bodily fluids between sex partners. When used properly, external condoms have a breakage rate of about 1%. Leaks are even rarer.

However, condoms can slip or 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 external condom choices below.

Latex condoms

Condoms made from latex rubber are the most common. But they may cause skin irritation or an allergic reaction for some people. Only silicone or water-based lubricants should be used with latex condoms. Do not use petroleum and oil-based lubricants with latex condoms.

If you are allergic to latex, use synthetic polymer 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. Silicone and water-based lubricants are safe to use with these condoms. For other types of lubricants, read the product label to determine if it's suitable to use with synthetic polymer condoms.

Natural membrane condoms

Natural membrane condoms are made from the intestinal lining of sheep. Natural membrane condoms contain microscopic holes. These holes are small enough to prevent semen from getting through the barrier to prevent pregnancy. But the holes are too large to prevent the spread of certain STBBI, including HIV. Natural membrane condoms should only be used for pregnancy prevention, not for STBBI prevention.

Spermicidally lubricated condoms

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

However, N-9 is not recommended for STBBI prevention. N-9 irritates the tissue inside the vagina or rectum, making people more vulnerable to infection through those areas. N-9 is also associated with increased urinary tract infections in people with vulvas/vaginas and may cause penile irritation.

Condoms with N-9 are not more effective in preventing STBBI than those without. Because of the increased risk of infection, spermicidally lubricated condoms should be avoided.

Internal Condoms

Internal condoms are liners inserted and worn inside the vagina or anus to prevent semen from entering the body. Internal condoms are usually made of polyurethane or latex. Internal condoms are 95% effective when used correctly and consistently for preventing pregnancy and STBBI.

It is not recommended to use an external condom and an internal condom at the same time as it increases the risk of a condom breaking.

Novelty Condoms

Novelty condoms should not be confused with condoms used to prevent pregnancy or infections. These condoms may be labeled as novelty and may have designs or textures that are not beneficial or intended for pregnancy or infection-prevention purposes. 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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