How do condoms work?

External (male) and internal (female) condoms are barrier methods of contraception that stop sperm from entering the vagina. If the sperm can’t get to the womb and fallopian tubes, they can’t fertilise an egg.

Condoms come in different: 

  • materials

  • sizes

  • shapes

  • textures

  • flavours

Using a condom that fits correctly is important. It’s worth trying different sizes and shapes of condoms to find the ones that suit you.

Badly fitting condoms can be a problem

In a questionnaire study with 436 men who had sex with women, those who reported using ill-fitting condoms were also more likely to report:

  • condoms coming off or breaking 

  • difficulty reaching orgasm, for their female partners and themselves 

  • irritated skin on their penis

  • reduced sexual pleasure, for their female partner and themselves

  • problems with erection, like losing an erection or becoming dry during sex

  • taking off the condom before they finished penis-in-vagina sex

This suggests that a badly-fitting condom can cause problems with pleasure and protection. Finding the right condom for you can improve your experience as well as the level of protection you get.

Different condom materials

Most external (male) condoms are made of latex rubber. You can also get condoms made from synthetic materials, including silicone, polyisoprene, polyurethane, polyethylene and nitrile.  

Internal (female) condoms are usually made of polyurethane. 

The non-latex condoms have slightly higher rates of breakage than latex condoms, but some people prefer them and some people need to use them because of latex allergies.

Some male condoms are made of animal tissue, like sheep and lambskin. But because they have tiny holes in the material, they’re thought to be less effective at preventing both pregnancy and STIs.

Vegan condoms are also available – check the packaging for the vegan symbol.

Different sizes of condoms

It’s important to get the right size of condom. If it’s too tight or too baggy, it can be uncomfortable and risk tearing.

In a large survey of almost 1,000 people in the USA, 15.5% complained about condom size or problems with the width, length and shape.  

  • male condoms vary in length from 170 to 220mm and in width from 40 to 60mm

  • female condoms vary in length from 120 to 180mm and in width from 70 to 83mm

Real contraception experiences

Sex with a condom vs sex without a condom will always feel at least a little different but don't be afraid to experiment with different brands/styles/sizes of condom – they are indeed different and will feel different.

Even though condoms can stretch over your fist, that doesn't mean that a condom will feel comfortable when stretched tight on your penis. If you're not getting any enjoyment out of sex with a condom, you're probably wearing the wrong size.

Different flavours, colours and textures

You can find external (male) condoms in a whole range of colours, flavours and textures: 

  • flavours: useful for oral sex, you can find all kinds of flavours such as mint, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla

  • colours: condoms come in all the colours of the rainbow, including some that glow in the dark 

  • textures: different textures – ribbed, grooved, studded or dotted – are said to increase sexual pleasure 

  • lubricants: all condoms are pre-lubricated but some are also coated in a lubricant that creates a warming or cooling sensation

Different thickness of condoms

You can also get condoms with different thicknesses. Thinner condoms are associated with increased sensation for both partners.

There’s no increased risk of breakage with thinner condoms, as long as they meet country-specific quality control standards, like the Kitemark in the UK.

Help with premature ejaculation

Some condoms have local anaesthetic (benzocaine lidocaine) added to the lubricant. This numbs the penis, which can help to delay ejaculation without stopping an erection.

Use latex-safe lubricants

Most condoms are pre-lubricated. But if you want to use extra lubrication, water or silicone based lubricants are recommended. Lubrication is particularly important for anal sex.  

Oil-based lubricants, such as baby oil or petroleum jelly (KY jelly or Vaseline), can damage latex and cause the condom to break. Treatments for thrush can also damage condoms.

Everything you wanted to know about sexual health and wellbeing - your questions answered by our expert team.