Medically Reviewed by Dr Danae Maragouthakis
Oops, you did it again! Just as things were getting hot and heavy, you realised that you never finished that research on which condom to wear. You know that they are one of the best ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as well as unplanned pregnancies. But…
What material should you pick?
What’s the correct fit or size?
Does any of this really matter?
Yes, yes it can matter! So, zip up those pants and ask your partner to hold off for just a few moments while we help you sort this all out. In this article, we discuss the different types of condoms available, and how to pick the right one for you.
A Quick History of Condoms
Condoms have actually been around for centuries, but just how long they’ve been around is up for debate. Some believe condoms (in a much more primitive form, of course) were used by ancient civilisations in Egypt, Greece and Rome. However, the earliest uncontested description of condom usage was in 16th-century Italy by anatomist and physician Gabriele Falloppio, who wrote a treatise on syphilis. He described condoms as “linen sheaths soaked in a chemical solution held on by ribbons.” If that description doesn’t make you feel safer in the bedroom, well…you’re not the only one!
After that, the seal was broken, and condoms (or other forms of “penis covering”) were written about throughout Europe. By the 18th century, condoms were available in a variety of qualities and sizes, and the most popular materials used were animal bladders and intestines.
As rates of STIs began to skyrocket throughout the second half of the 19th century, schools began offering sex education classes that often taught abstinence as the only way to prevent STIs. Yikes!
Then along came Charles Goodyear (yes, the “Goodyear Blimp” guy) who discovered a way of processing rubber to make it elastic. Using that same technology, the first latex condom was produced in 1855.
It’s worth noting that Goodyear, the guy whose discovery led to the development of the modern-day condom, also became known for floating a giant phallic symbol thousands of feet in the sky. A coincidence? We think not.
Though female condoms have also been used for centuries, the first description of a modern female condom dates back to about 1907.
Most condoms, male and female, are made of rubber latex, but condoms made of lambskin, polyurethane, nitrile, and polyisoprene are also available.
The Importance of Condom Usage
Condoms create a physical barrier between you and your partner(s) to help reduce the chances of transmitting STIs and (for some) getting pregnant. When used correctly, condoms are about 98% effective against most STIs. However, it’s important to remember that condoms do not cover your entire genital area, so some STIs such as herpes, genital warts, and syphilis, can still be transmitted - even with correct and careful condom use.
In 2017, Public Health England launched a sexual health campaign in response to the concerning rise of STI rates in 16 to 24-year-olds, and reports showing that half of young people don’t use condoms during sex with a new partner.
While condom usage appears to be generally increasing, there are still many people who don’t use them routinely, perhaps because they don’t appreciate the advantages of condoms, or are unaware of all the available options. A 2017 survey revealed that 1 in 10 young people who are sexually active have never used a condom! Some people find condoms uncomfortable, while others are allergic to some condom materials! But rest assured, there’s a condom out there for everyone!
Types of Condoms
Gone are the days of using tortoise shells or animal horns to make condoms. Now, there are several new and improved materials to choose from, much to our relief!
Latex is the most commonly used condom material. It’s durable, effective, and affordable. Latex is derived from natural rubber harvested from trees and can stretch up to 800% before breaking! However, latex condoms can become damaged when used with oil-based lubricants, and some people have an allergy to latex that prevents usage. In the UK, latex allergies affect less than 1 in 1,000 people.
Polyurethane is probably the most popular alternative to latex condoms. Polyurethane is a synthetically created, non-allergenic plastic and is safe to use with all types of lubricants. Polyurethane is also thinner than natural latex, and users find that it conducts body heat better. Polyurethane condoms do not have the same stretchability as latex condoms, so may be more prone to breaking or slipping during intercourse.
Polyisoprene, sometimes referred to as “synthetic rubber latex”, is another alternative for those with a latex allergy. They are made from “man-made” rubber and fit and stretch in much the same way as natural latex condoms, however, they don't contain the same allergens. Polyisoprene condoms are thicker than polyurethane, however many users prefer them because the material is softer and feels less rubbery. They’re also often slightly less expensive than polyurethane condoms.
Lambskin condoms are not as common as latex or polyurethane condoms, and they are not as effective at preventing STIs. They are made from the membrane of lamb intestines and are considered to be one of the oldest (if not the oldest) forms of contraception. Some prefer the natural lambskin material because they think it feels better during sex. Unfortunately, while they are about 98% effective at preventing pregnancy, lambskin condoms are not able to prevent the transmission of bodily fluids that can spread STIs like HIV or gonorrhoea as effectively as latex or polyurethane.
Female condoms also act as a barrier, but instead of being worn externally on the penis, they are worn inside the vagina. Female condoms help protect both partners from certain STIs, including HIV. They are also a reliable method of preventing pregnancy and (if used correctly) have no serious side effects. One of the benefits of female condoms is that they can be inserted up to eight hours before intercourse, which helps to minimise interruption between foreplay and sex. However they can be trickier to use than male condoms, and so we’d advise having a practice before using them for the real thing! Female condoms are most commonly made from polyurethane, latex, or nitrile.
Anal Sex Condoms
Whilst most condoms can be used for anal intercourse, the FDA recently approved the “myONE” male condom for anal sex. The myONE condom is made of natural rubber latex, and is available in 66 different sizes, with a printable paper template to aid users in finding the right size.
How to Pick the Right Condom for You
People come in all different shapes and sizes, and so do, too. Here are a few things to consider when choosing the right condom for you and your partner(s).
- Think about the condom material, and how it feels and reacts during sex. While latex condoms are the most common, there are a multitude of options available to suit individual needs.
- Consider how your partner(s) may react to the condom material. Even though one person wears the condom, all parties involved will come in contact with it.
- Different materials offer different levels of protection from STIs and pregnancy. It’s worth remembering that no condom offers 100% protection against STIs and pregnancy, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of STIs, and what to do if your condom fails.
- Consider the size and fit of the condom. While it’s sometimes true that “size doesn’t matter,” using a condom tailored to your size can not only make it less likely to break or slip, but can also enhance pleasure.
- Consider comfort and confidence with the chosen condom. It's hard to enjoy yourself if a specific material doesn't feel or fit right, or if it causes you to question its reliability with every movement.
When selecting a new type of condom, we’d recommend testing one out first, to avoid surprises later on – just be sure to start with a fresh one when you need it later on.
Ultimately, the goal is to find a condom that meets your needs and protects you and your partner(s). Whatever condom you choose, be sure to wear one every time you have any type of sex (including oral), to minimise the risk of picking up or passing on an STI. If you haven’t been using protection, or you just think it’s time to get tested, consider ordering one of our at-home STI test kits.
If you’d like to know more about what to expect in an at-home STI test kit, check out this Beginner’s Guide.
There you have it! A quick overview on choosing the right condom for you and your partner(s). Hopefully, you’ve still got your pants on and you can pop over to the shop to pick some up before running back to the bedroom – or wherever it is your partner has been patiently waiting.