On this page

The ultimate guide to condoms

Couple embracing in bed
On this page

Condoms are a popular method of contraception. Some of the earliest uses date back to Egyptian times when men would use sheaths to protect themselves against diseases and distinguish different classes of people. Following the invention of latex in the 1920s, condoms became the go-to contraceptive, particularly during the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s. Today they can come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavours - but do you know how they work?

In this guide we share how to use a condom, where to get them and how to find the right one for you.

What are condoms?

A condom is a very thin tube, often made of latex that provides a physical barrier to prevent the exchange of semen during sexual activity. Condoms are the only form of contraception that offers protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

How do condoms work?

There are two types of condoms; male condoms that are worn on the penis and female condoms that are worn inside the vagina. Both work in the same way to protect against pregnancy and STIs.

Preventing pregnancy

Condoms are a ‘barrier’ method of contraception. This means that they prevent pregnancy by stopping semen from coming into contact with an egg.


Condoms can also protect you against STIs when used during vaginal, anal and oral sex. Other methods of contraception such as the pill do not stop you from getting an STI during sex. Therefore, it is recommended to use a condom to avoid catching diseases such as HIV, chlamydia and herpes, even if you are using other types of contraception.


Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that is spread through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area and vaginal, anal or oral sex. It rarely causes problems however some types of HPV can cause genital warts and be linked to cancer. The HPV vaccine is the best way to protect yourself against HPV however using condoms can also help.

How effective are condoms?

Male condoms are 98% effective when used correctly. This means that 2 out of 100 people will become pregnant in one year when using male condoms. Female condoms are 95% effective when used correctly.

Shop condoms

How to use a condom

Condoms can be used for vaginal, oral and anal sex as well as when using sex toys to protect against the spread of STIs and HPV. Follow the below steps to ensure you use a male condom effectively:

  1. Carefully open the condom packet, making sure not to tear the condom with your fingernails or jewellery.
  2. Pinch the teat of the condom to squeeze out any air and place it over the tip of the erect penis.
  3. Roll the condom down to the base of the penis.
  4. If the condom doesn’t roll down it is likely on the wrong way round. If this is the case, throw it away and use a new one as it may have sperm on it.
  5. After use, gently remove the condom being careful not to spill any semen and throw it away in a bin (not in the toilet!). This is a good time to check that the condom hasn’t split during use.

If you have difficulty keeping an erection, then you may not be able to use condoms as it may slip off during use. Find out more about how you can treat erectile dysfunction with Viagra Connect, a safe and discreet treatment available online at LloydsPharmacy.

How to get rid of used condoms

Used condoms and condom wrappers should be wrapped in a tissue or paper towel and put in the bin. Condoms should never be flushed down the toilet as they can both block pipes and cause environmental damage. This includes biodegradable condoms which are not suitable for home composting.

Finding the right size of condom for you

Condoms should feel tight however they should also feel comfortable to wear. Making sure the condom fits will help to make using it more enjoyable and effective.

Condom sizes available

Condoms don’t just come in one size. Different brands have different size guides however the most common width sizes are:

  • Standard: 52mm
  • Large: 52-56mm
  • XL: 57mm

How to measure and choose your size

If a condom feels too loose, tight, long or short, then you may need to try a different fit. Measure your penis length from the base and the width at the widest part to find your size.

Shop condoms

How to check if your condoms have expired

Check if your condoms are out of date by looking at the packaging. All condom wrappers have a use-by-date that you should abide by. Expired condoms are not guaranteed to be effective.

What are condoms made from?

Most condoms are made from thin latex rubber, however they can also be made from different materials for those who have allergies or seek a more ethical alternative.

Latex condoms

The most common type of condom is made from latex. This makes the condom extremely flexible and easy to use.

Latex free condoms

Some people are allergic or sensitive to latex, causing symptoms such as itching or skin rashes. You can therefore get latex-free condoms that are made from polyurethane or polyisoprene. These are often thinner than latex condoms but offer the same protection.

Lambskin condoms

Lambskin condoms are made from lamb intestines and have been around for thousands of years. The benefits are that they can be used with any lubricant and are biodegradable, however unlike other types of condoms, lambskin condoms don’t protect against STIs which can penetrate through tiny holes in the material.

Vegan condoms

The main component of a condom is latex, which comes from the rubber tree. However other components used in the manufacturing process aren’t strictly animal-friendly, including casein, a milk-protein which is used to soften the latex. There are therefore vegan alternatives which instead replace any animal by-products with plant-based extracts.

Types of condoms

As well as different sizes and materials, there are also different types of condoms you can use.

Male condoms

External, or male condoms are the most common type of condom. These are worn over the penis to protect against pregnancy and STIs.

Female condoms

Female condoms can also be worn to prevent pregnancy. These are generally larger in size than male condoms and are placed inside the vagina before sex.


Textured condoms have a non-smooth surface to increase pleasure for both partners. The most common types are ribbed or dotted condoms.


Condoms can also come in a variety of fun flavours. Flavoured lubricant is used to mask the smell and taste of the latex, making the condoms more enjoyable for oral sex.

Condoms with spermicide

You can buy condoms with spermicide on the exterior that may provide extra protection against pregnancy. Spermicide is a contraceptive that kills sperm and stops them from entering the uterus. It doesn’t, however, protect against STIs and should not be used as a lubricant.

Lubricated condoms

Most condoms come lubricated to make them easier to use.

What kind of lubricant to use with condoms?

You can use any form of water-based lubricant with any type of condom. This can help to make sex more comfortable and is particularly advised for anal sex to reduce the risk of a condom splitting. Oil-based products including moisturisers, lotion and Vaseline are only safe to use with polyurethane condoms.

Shop for lubricants and gels

Where to buy condoms?

You can buy condoms from most supermarkets, pharmacies and health and beauty retailers. They can also be found in some petrol stations, toilet vending machines and online. Discover our collection of condoms online.

How old do you have to be to buy condoms?

There is no minimum age to buy condoms. You can buy them in a store or online, or get them for free, even before the age of 16.

Where can I get free condoms in the UK?

Anyone can get condoms for free in the UK, even if you are under 16. Go to your local contraception clinic or sexual health clinic to pick up free condoms. GP surgeries and young people’s services also may have condoms available.

Can condoms cause thrush, BV or UTIs?

Condoms are not a cause of thrush, BV (bacterial vaginosis) or UTIs. Rather, studies show that they may decrease the risk of BV whilst others state that having sex itself can sometimes increase the risk of a vaginal infection.

There are however some cases in which condoms may cause symptoms. Condoms that are flavoured or have spermicide on them can contain ingredients that cause irritation in the vagina.

If you’re experiencing itching, swelling or burning whilst using condoms, you may have a latex allergy rather than thrush or a UTI. Try using polyurethane or polyisoprene condoms to avoid an allergic reaction.

What to do if the condom breaks?

Condoms rarely break however you should always be careful and check for splits after use.

If you see that a condom has broken, you may wish to consider emergency contraception to prevent against pregnancy such as the morning after pill. You can do so up to 5 days after unprotected sex. You should also consider getting an STI test at either a sexual health clinic or contraception clinic.