We don't have to tell you that condoms are amazing at preventing sexually transmitted infections like HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and cancer-causing HPV. Yet, despite the importance of condoms, they don’t prevent every kind of STI. Condoms can't project against the spread of every form of HPV, and the herpes virus (HSV) often slips through the cracks as well. “Condoms are not 100 percent protective against infections, but definitely give you the best chance of preventing unwanted problems,” explains Dr. Sherry Ross, a women’s health expert and author of She-ology. The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health.
So we have to wonder how effective are condoms, really? They’re the best STI prevention we have, but how good are they at their job? Are we relying too heavily on the barrier method? What are the facts?
Condoms and pregnancy
Condoms are about 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy if they are put on correctly every single time. This is the big issue: A lot of the time condoms are put on incorrectly.
From putting them on backwards to forgetting to pinch the tip, many people simply don’t know how to properly use condoms due to inadequate sexual education. “Condoms are used to prevent STIs, not pregnancy, since there is a high failure rate,” Ross tells Brides. And because of this, “condoms are effective at preventing pregnancy 85 percent of the time.”
Ross highly recommends using an additional form of birth control along with condoms to ensure the prevention of an unexpected pregnancy. If you want to know more about birth control options, click here or here.
Condoms and STIs
According to the FDA, condoms help to prevent sexually transmitted infections like HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and many others. Using the barrier method (condoms) really is the best way to prevent spread of sexually transmitted infections. Use them religiously to protect yourself.
This includes use during oral sex. Using condoms during blow jobs isn’t enough; if you’re performing cunnilingus or anilingus, you have to use a barrier as well.
“Using a dental dam [or female condom] regularly is part of the definition of safe sex. It’s a small square of latex or polyurethane that is used during oral sex,” Ross explains. “It’s designed to cover the vulva and clitoris or the anus, and should be used between the mouth and vagina or mouth and anus during oral sex. It is made of the same material that condoms are made from, latex and polyurethane, to prevent sexually transmitted infections. It’s also a one-time use.”
Condoms don’t completely prevent against every STI
Despite sexual health professionals telling everyone to use condoms, they don’t seem to be helping to prevent the widespread HPV infections as much as we’d expect.
HPV, an STI transmitted skin-to-skin, affects so many people it’s kind of insane. Nearly 90 percent of sexually active people will have some form of HPV in their lives. Even women who use condoms often find themselves in need of cervical biopsy having picked up HPV from oral sex, hand sex, or even just naked bumping and grinding without any penetration at all. Yes, it is that easy to spread.
While Dr. Ross tells us that condoms can prevent some of the cervical-cancer-causing forms of HPV (usually transmitted through intercourse), they don’t stop oral or anal forms of HPV from spreading. And even condoms aren’t 100 percent effective in spreading genital HPV.
The best prevention we have against HPV? Get vaccinated. Click here to learn more.
Moreover, if your partner has the herpes virus and has an outbreak or is untreated, condoms probably won’t protect you from picking it up since sores appear on more than just the penis or vulva. They can appear on the testicles, mons pubis, labia, and general genital areas of both men and women. These areas aren’t covered by the condom barrier. “Most people don’t know they carry HPV or aware they have an early HSV outbreak on their genitals,” Ross adds.
So while using condoms is important, it’s also crucial that we understand where they aren’t infallible. There are still health risks.
You should be using condoms if you’re not in a monogamous relationship in which you’ve both been tested for STIs—but they simply aren’t going to protect you from everything. Condoms are the best we’ve got, but they aren’t perfect. These are just the facts. Information is better when known.