Updated November 19, 2019.
It’s the golden rule of safe sex: always use a condom. But has the well-intentioned person who created that rule actually been down the condom aisle lately? Between the ribbed, magnum, warming, and flavored options, it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed and more than a little confused. How do you know which size is right? And will something scary happen if you opt for the glow-in-the-dark option?
The most important strategy to staying safe is to get informed. Despite any claims to the contrary, there is a condom out there for everyone. It’s just a matter of finding the right one. And if you think you’re home free because you or your partner are on birth control, are both male, or can’t conceive for any reason, think again. Condoms have a lot more going for them than a 98 percent effectiveness rate at preventing pregnancy (when used properly). They reduce the risk of STIs including HIV, are low-cost, easy to access, easy to dispose of, generally have low risk of side effects, and can even make sex more pleasurable since they reduce stress over infection and pregnancy.
Rather than freak out over endless options, check out the handy guide below to find the perfect condom for you.
First, Find the Right Fit
You may snicker at your friend’s box of jumbo condoms, but the larger size isn’t always about vanity; it’s about safety. If a condom is too small, it can create friction and break, and if it’s too big, it can slip off. A 2010 study from the Kinsey Institute found that men who wore condoms that didn’t fit correctly reported problems like breakage, slippage, penis irritation, reduced sexual pleasure and more difficulty reaching orgasm — for themselves and for their partners. They also felt the ill-fitting condom interfered with their erection and contributed to dryness during intercourse.
Avoid those major problems by finding the right fit. Lucky Bloke, an online condom retailer, suggests using the toilet paper roll test. Seriously. Sliding an empty roll over an erect penis reveals a lot: extra room means that guy likely needs a regular size condom, and if the roll doesn’t fit or is tight, then a larger size is probably best.
“If you’re shopping at the drugstore or ordering from a different site, it may be a little puzzling to determine which condom is larger, which is average, etc.,” says Good Vibrations sex educator Carol Queen. “Good Vibrations made a handy chart for its website so you can compare your at-home measurements to the condoms’ sizes.”
Queen, who wrote The Sex & Pleasure Book, also advises consumers to keep the condom’s material in mind when selecting a size. “Remember that latex condoms are very stretchy, so that helps,” she says. On the other hand, polyurethane condoms, which are popular with people sensitive to latex, aren’t as flexible, so “larger-penised people may not have as good an experience with these.” She also adds that a cock ring can help keep a condom in place on small or thin penises.
Another option is to try measuring tape and experimenting with a few different fits until you find the right one.
What Those Words on the Condom Box Really Mean
Standing in the “family planning” aisle can be stressful enough without trying to size up all the competing claims and adjectives in a rush. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here’s how to break down all the terminology:
- What it Means: This is a natural form of rubber used to make most condoms on the market.
- Pros: Latex condoms are easy to find and they stretch to accommodate a wide range of sizes.
- Cons: Some people are allergic to a protein in latex. And latex doesn’t mix with oil-based lubes, which can cause them to break or slip more easily.
Thin and Ultra-Thin
- What it Means: Made from thinner-than-average latex.
- Pros: Allows for more sensation but still just as safe. “At Babeland, sheer or thin condoms are the most popular- they allow for more sensation through the latex,” says Claire Cavanah, Babeland co-founder and co-author of Moregasm: Babeland’s Guide to Mind-blowing Sex. “The Condom Sampler, which has a selection of ten different brands and styles, is a bestseller.” They’re a hit elsewhere too. “Our best sellers tend to be those that are super sensitive and/or super thin,” says Coyote Days, the Good Vibrations purchasing and product manager.
- Cons: Some people actually prefer thicker condoms because the decreased sensation allows them to last longer during sex.
Ribbed for Her Pleasure
- What it Means: These condoms are designed with extra bumps and ridges.
- Pros: The extra ridges are designed to stimulate the G-spot and provide extra stimulation. Thirty percent of women are unable to orgasm from intercourse alone, so some find the extra sensation pleasurable.
- Cons: Some women find the ridges and bumps uncomfortable. These are usually thicker than standard condoms, so anyone looking for a thinner style might not like the feel.
Shared Pleasure (“Fire & Ice”)
Carol Queen, Good Vibrations
- What it Means: These are coated inside and out with warming lube.
- Pros: Some people find the warming or cooling stimulating.
- Cons: Others find the sensation uncomfortable and distracting, which can make it difficult to climax. “I would never recommend the type of condom with additional sensation gel,” Queen says. “If you don’t like the way it feels, you’re either stuck with it or tempted to take the condom off.”
- What it Means: Enhanced with desensitizing lube.
- Pros: Makes the penis head less sensitive, so men who have a hard time lasting (1 out of 3 men experience premature ejaculation) may like the effect. Some of these condoms also have “arousal lubricant” on the outside of the condom meant to warm/tingle to enhance the experience for the partner while slowing it down for the wearer.
- Cons: Men who don’t have a problem with premature ejaculation may find it decreases pleasure.
- What it Means: Made from a part of a thin, porous membrane in a lamb’s intestine.
- Pros: Can be a good alternative for anyone allergic to latex or plastic.
- Cons: They do prevent pregnancy (not as effectively as latex), but don’t protect against STIs, so are only ideal for monogamous couples.
- What it Means: Made from a special type of plastic that helps prevent pregnancy and STI infection.
- Pros: Polyurethane is thinner than latex and comes in different sizes. It transfers heat better than latex, so it feels like less of a barrier. They’re also free of the latex smell, thin, and available in different sizes. Trojan Supra is a common drugstore brand.
- Cons: They’re less stretchy than latex and not so form-fitting, so it’s a good idea to pair them with water-based lube. They can also be a little harder to find at drugstores.
- What it Means: A synthetic latex material that’s just as strong but without the allergy-triggering proteins.
- Pros: Generally stretchier and more resistant to breakage than other latex-free options and are more form-fitting. “We have a big demand for Lifestyle Skyn condoms,” Cavanah says.
- Cons: They’re slightly thicker than polyurethane or latex, so some people may find them less comfortable.
- What it Means: A chemical substance that stops sperm from moving.
- Pros: No significant pros, although it’s intended to add another level of protection against pregnancy.
- Cons: The active ingredient, nonoxynol-9, can irritate vulvar tissue and vaginal lining, causing micro-tears that increase the risk of contracting HIV or other STIs. The CDC and WHO do not recommend condoms with nonoxynol-9 for preventing infection or disease. “Babeland won’t stock anything with N-9, a spermicide that can increase your risk of HIV transmission,” Cavanah says.
Claire Cavanah, Babeland
- What it Means: Standard latex condoms with either a flavored coating or a center layer containing a non-toxic phosphorous pigment that lights up in the dark.
- Pros: Flavored condoms can enhance oral sex. “Flavored condoms now come in some surprisingly tasty flavors and are useful for fellatio,” Cavanah says. “Want to try banana split, island punch, or mint chocolate?”
- Cons: Both are generally considered safe, but only one brand of glow-in-the-dark condom is actually FDA-approved (the Night Light brand). To be extra safe, you may want to consider these gag gifts or novelty items rather than reliable protection.
The Female Condom
- What it Means: A polyurethane pouch with flexible rings on either end that’s inserted into the vagina before intercourse.
- Pros: It allows women the opportunity to share responsibility for protection. It also helps reduce the risk of HIV and other STIs.
- Cons: It’s slightly less effective than the male condom at preventing pregnancy and usually more expensive (about $4 each compared to about $1-$1.50).
Don’t Forget the Lubricant
“Remember that lubricant is not just for comfort, but to manage the friction of the condom, and will make the condom less likely to break,” Queen says. “It’s not optional, at least not for vaginal or anal insertion.”
And have you ever tried lube inside the condom? Queen says it’s an easy way to make any condom feel better. “Put three or four drops of lubricant in the top before rolling it onto the penis. This will allow the inside of the condom to move on the sensitive corona, much as a foreskin does on an uncircumcised penis. You don’t want a bunch of lube, so it drips down the shaft and destabilizes the condom on the penis, but if the added wetness stays at the head, it can add a lot of sensation.”
And here’s how to pick the best lube for you:
- What it Means: Made of water-soluble ingredients that absorb into the skin and evaporate.
- Pros: The most common and safest to use with latex contraceptives and sex toys. Easy to clean up and are designed to be non-irritating.
- Cons: Can dry quickly but can be re-wet with saliva or water.
- What it Means: Made of ingredients that do not contain water and aren’t absorbed by the skin or mucous membranes.
- Pros: Lasts longer than water-based lubricants.
- Cons: Can’t be used with silicone sex toys but can be used with latex contraceptives and non-silicone sex toys.
- What it Means: Made of oil-based products like petroleum jelly and vitamin E.
- Pros: Best for monogamous couples who don’t use condoms or other latex contraceptives.
- Cons: Not for use with latex products or rubber toys because it can break down latex. Can be messy and difficult to clean up and some people have allergies to certain oils.
Another potential drawback to lubing with household products like petroleum jelly or baby oil: a 2013 study found that women who used those products were more likely to develop bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection.
Remember that different people may have different reactions to the ingredients and materials in various condoms and lubricants. If you think you’re experiencing something strange, make an appointment with your primary care provider. He or she will be happy to know you’re abiding by the golden rule of safe sex.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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