Published in partnership with Scarleteen
As we’ve explained in the past, like here, with proper use, condoms actually break very rarely. The common mythology that condoms are flimsy and break all the time is just that: mythology, not reality. Different studies on latex condom breakage tend to reflect a breakage rate of around .4%, or only 4 breaks in every 1,000 uses. So, if you’re having condoms break often, especially before you’ve even used them a few hundred times, it’s not likely something is wrong with condoms, but that something is wrong with the way you’re using them. That’s not surprising, since a lot of people don’t get good information about how to use condoms correctly, or ever see clear, slow demonstrations of proper use where they also get the chance to ask questions.
Since we’ve been having some users lately reporting patterns of breakage, we thought we’d take a few minutes to walk you through a review of some common issues that tend to make breakage more likely, so that those of you using condoms can avoid breaks and have them provide you the high level of effectiveness in preventing pregnancy and STIs you are using them for.
Have you checked the expiration date? Condoms past their expiry date are much more likely to break, because the latex can start to break down. If they’re past the expiry date, they also may have been shuffled around for a long time. The expiry date put on a condom — which you can always find right on the package of every individual condom — is usually for around five years after it’s been manufactured, so you’ve got a pretty good time window. Our advice? Make sure a condom is not only within its expiry date, but around six months ahead of it, the time when a lot of condom resellers dump a batch instead of continuing to sell them. Don’t use condoms past their expiry dates: toss them out and get yourself new ones.
Are you or your partners storing them properly? Sometimes people carry around what we’ll call the “wishful thinking” condom. That one condom they keep in their wallet from the dawn of time, thinking if they have that one condom, they’ll be more likely to have an opportunity for sex. Or maybe you just think that will assure you’ll never be without a condom when you need one, which would be great if the condom you had had been stored properly.
Condoms need to be stored somewhere that doesn’t get too hot or cold, where they’re not directly exposed to sun or fluorescent light, and where they don’t get bumped around a lot. Back pockets, wallets, the bottom of a purse or inside a car dashboard compartment are not sound places to store condoms. If you want to carry a condom or two around with you, find something you can put them in that protects them, like a pencil case, or in the box they came in if you bought a whole box. There are also cases made expressly for storing condoms, and sometimes when you buy condoms, you might find some already specially packaged in a storage case.
Condom storage is also something to think about before you even have the condom yourself. Some places that sell or dispense condoms don’t store them properly, potentially screwing them up before you even get them. That’s why machines that dispense them aren’t such a great place to get them, nor are places like gas stations, which often keep them near the front windows, where it can get hot or sunny. When purchasing condoms, look for them to be in a spot where temperatures are moderate and they’re not in direct sunlight. You also want to avoid hand-me-down condoms, too, however well-intentioned the person who gave them to you may be. Who knows how that person stored them.
Leaving room in the tip? You don’t put condoms on like you put on a sock or stocking, where you pull them all the way on so that they’re snug at the tip. Instead, we need to leave a little bit of room — around a half inch or so, or the width of two fingers, if that’s easier — at the tip for ejaculate and so the condom can move around a little bit. That makes them feel more comfortable, too.
Using enough lubricant? Plenty of condoms come pre-lubricated, but that’s only a smidgen of lube. More times than not, especially for intercourse that goes on for a while — and more so with anal intercourse than vaginal, since the anus doesn’t produce its own lubricant — you’ll need some extra lube right from the start, or to add lube during sex. Even with vaginal intercourse, while the vagina often produces its own lubrication when the person with the vagina is aroused, lube is often still needed. It’s pretty common for younger people to feel nervous or have issues with arousal, so not being as lubed up on your own as you might be otherwise is typical. Too, if you’re using a hormonal birth control method like the pill, one common side effect is a drier vagina. While we don’t endorse mixing sex with drugs or booze, being wasted also tends to impact lubrication, especially with alcohol. By all means, drinking impairs our judgment no matter what, making it a lot harder to use condoms at all, let alone properly, but it also often inhibits parts of the sexual response cycle. Whatever the reason, chances are awfully good that you need more lube than a condom itself offers. Plus, putting a drop or two of lube inside the condom, as well as more liberally on the outside, makes condoms feel a lot better, too.
Feeling funny about using lube? Don’t, seriously. People have used lubricants for as far back as we know, and if you ask us, beautifully engineered, clean lube in a bottle or tube is a serious improvement over animal guts or blubber, something we know people way back in the day used as lube. The idea that a body creating enough lubricant on its own gives a person some kind of sexual status, and that not being lubed up enough on your own means something is terribly wrong, are both really problematic ideas. Lube makes things feel better most of the time, and it helps condoms be more effective. We can probably agree that there’s no status in sex feeling less than as good as it can, or in a condom failure.
Remember, what you use as lube with latex condoms matters a lot. When buying lube, look for the tube bottle or packet to make clear a lube can be used with condoms. Oil-based lubes or oils, lotions or vaseline are NOT okay to use with latex condoms.
One condom per customer. If you have the idea that two condoms at a time are better than one, ditch it, and fast. That only increases friction, which increases the possibility of breakage. Only use one condom at a time.
Same goes for thinking thinner condoms will be more likely to break: that’s not true. Thinner condoms often feel better and are just as effective as thicker ones.
Does the condom fit? Condoms really aren’t one size fits all. Sure, most brands will fit a lot of people just fine. But some brands or styles don’t work for plenty of folks. So, if a condom is really tough to get on or off, hard to roll down, won’t roll down all the way, or feels uncomfortable, try out some different sizes or brands. If we have to struggle with condoms, we’re more likely to put them on wrong or just ditch them altogether. And with so many options in condoms, there’s no reason anyone should have to use a size or style that doesn’t work for them. The right condom usually feels great and works just as well. Even if you’re getting condoms for free from a clinic or school, you’ll often have more than one option, so snag a few different ones when you can.
Carrying condoms when you’re not the one wearing them? If so, see if you can’t buy variety packs, so you have more than one style or size around in case another just doesn’t work out. Most condom manufacturers sell combination boxes of a couple different styles or fits, sold right where you can get boxes of only one style or size. If you feel funny about having a variety and worry about judgment from a partner, remember that what you’re doing is having an assortment so they’re most likely to have a condom that feels good for them. Every partner is going to appreciate that.
Are you or your partner hanging around after ejaculation or starting intercourse again without changing condoms? Male condoms are manufactured and designed for a single use: in other words, for only one session of intercourse or one ejaculation. After ejaculation happens, it’s really important the person wearing the condom withdraws pretty immediately. If you want to continue that sexual activity or start again, you need to put on a new condom.
Breaking during oral sex use? That’s even more unusual than breaks during intercourse, but if it’s happening, we’ve got one word for you: teeth. You’ve got’em, and they’re sharper than you think (just ask your lunch). If condoms are breaking during oral sex, and they were put on properly, stored properly, and are within the expiry date, teeth are probably the issue here. Remember that during oral sex, you’ve got to watch those little sharpies, both for a partner’s comfort, but also when using condoms.
While we’re talking about teeth, don’t forget that they’re not what you want to use to open a condom. That can easily rip or tear the condom. You want to use your hands to open a condom, not your mouth.
Practice makes perfect. So does patience. If you’re racing around in a big hurry to put a condom on, it’s a lot easier to make mistakes. And when everyone is turned on, they can be a lot tougher to notice. So, if you aren’t already an expert with putting condoms on — whether you’re the person who wears them or not — practice. If you are the person wearing them, practice during masturbation, where you don’t have the pressures we can all feel when there’s a partner there. If you aren’t the person wearing them, get some condoms and find something suitable to practice on: the age-old banana is always an option, and one of our users today said she practiced using a deodorant can.
Remember that it’s ideal for everyone involved with condom use to know the right way to use them and how to put them on. Not only can putting them on for a partner make condoms feel like part of sexual activity, rather than an interruption, we all have different levels of experience and skill with condoms, as well as different levels of condom education. So, if both people know how, and one person is doing something wrong, rather than finding out the hard way, the other person can easily make a correction so condoms work as well as you want them to, every time.
Don’t forget about the female condom! If no matter what you do, male condoms (and we know, this female/male language doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly isn’t very inclusive, but it’s what they’re called right now) don’t seem to work out for you, try a female condom to see if that works better. Female condoms are non-latex, and far roomier at the base and through the shaft than male condoms are, and they can also be inserted well in advance of intercourse to help you avoid game-time fumbles. As well, if you or a partner prefer not to withdraw soon after intercourse, that’s okay with female condoms in a way it isn’t with male condoms, which are more likely to break or slip off when withdrawal doesn’t happen soon, or if intercourse is something you continue after ejaculation. Female condoms can be a bit tougher to find, so if you want to try them and are having a hard time finding them, check in with your local sexual health or family planning clinic.
Have questions or want someone to walk you through all the steps of proper condom use so you can be sure you’re doing it right? We’ve got your back: come on over to the message boards, or use our text service. We’re happy to talk with you one-on-one.
P.S. We just got a helpful addition to this list from Scarleteen reader and peer sex educator Katarina Albrecht. She said, “Another important point: Do NOT poke your finger carelessly into the tip to correct the direction for rolling them off! We teach people to blow into the tip to change the direction or be reeeally careful with their nails. We’ve been seeing so. many. girls (and boys) do this with their long, sharp, nicely manicured fingernails.” Thanks, Katarina!