Condoms, Caps and Dams . . . Barrier Methods for Everyone!

February is a time full of candy kisses, love, and romance. It’s a time for couples to express their love for each other with chocolate, flowers, diamonds, and yes . . . lots of sex. It’s no wonder then that February is also National Condom Month.

Barrier methods are great forms of birth control because they don’t have the same side effects as hormonal birth control. They function by keeping the sperm from ever coming in contact with the egg, preventing fertilization of the egg. Some also protect against sexually transmitted infections (STI’s).

Male Condoms
Condoms are one of the most common and widely used of all the birth control methods and the only one that can protect against STI’s. They are generally made from latex or animal membranes, such as sheep skin. The material is shaped like a penis, with an opening on one end in which the penis can be inserted. This should be done prior to any intercourse, oral or anal sex, to prevent pregnancy. The condom will then collect any semen from the penis, thus avoiding pregnancy. Latex condoms also provide a barrier between body fluids to prevent contact with STIs.

Aside from a lack of side effects, condoms are a great form of birth control for several reasons. They are cheap and easily accessible, come in a variety of options to enhance pleasure (flavored, shaped, texture, etc.), may delay premature ejaculation, and can be used with virtually any other birth control to enhance the effectiveness of pregnancy prevention. Condoms are available at almost any pharmacy, most grocery stores, and at Planned Parenthood and other health/family clinics. Planned Parenthood also services condom vending machines in the Tucson area, which has condoms available for $0.50 at various locations. The cost can vary, but generally runs about $1 per condom; at some clinics and educational programs, condoms may be available at little or no cost.

There are many great resources at Planned Parenthood’s website to answer any of your condom-related questions.

Female Condoms
Female, or insertive, condoms are another fabulous barrier method. Similar to the male condom, female condoms work by collecting sperm, preventing it from entering the uterus. They are a thin plastic tube with a ring at each end and, like the male condom, have an opening at one end. The closed end is inserted into the vagina before intercourse and is held in place by the ring. The other end remains outside of the vagina and is also held in place by a ring; once in place, intercourse is possible without fertilization. Female condoms are also great for anal intercourse in that they help protect against STIs, and many couples find the process of “putting it on” enjoyable as foreplay.

Available at some pharmacies, grocery stores and clinics, female condoms tend to cost more than male condoms and can be a little more difficult to find. Planned Parenthood estimates the retail cost at $4 each. If you’re still unsure exactly how the female condom works, Planned Parenthood has an educational video about it on their website .

The effectiveness of both male and female condoms is quite high, but is dependent on proper use. According to Planned Parenthood, when used consistently and properly, the effectiveness in preventing pregnancy is 98% for the male condom and 95% for the female condom. When used inconsistently or occasionally, the effectiveness is 85% for the male condom and 79% for the female condom.

To increase the effectiveness of both types of condoms, spermicides can be used. They work by inhibiting the mobility of the sperm, which keeps them from ever reaching the egg. Most spermicides are in the form of creams, foams, or gels, and can be found in most drugstores; some condoms already contain a spermicide. While they can be used alone, the effectiveness of spermicides (about 85% when used correctly) is greatly increased when used with other methods of birth control. It is important to remember however, that spermicides do not protect against STIs and with certain types, such as Nonoxynol-9, the risk of getting an STI can actually be increased when used daily.

Cervical Barriers
Cervical barriers such as the FemCap and Diaphragm are always used with a spermicide. These barriers work by literally covering the cervix to prevent the sperm from entering the uterus, and the spermicide works by making the sperm immobile. There are many types and brands of cervical barriers but they generally all work the same. The caps are slightly smaller and are typically made of silicone as opposed to the larger, latex diaphragms. After the spermicide is applied to the cap or diaphragm, it is inserted into the vagina, over the cervix, before intercourse. A great advantage of these methods is that they can be inserted several hours before intercourse, but they must be left in place for at least ten minutes after sex to insure that all of the sperm are immobile.

Spermicides can cause irritation to the vagina which may lead to discomfort during and/or after sex; the irritation of the vaginal tissue (common with Nonoxynol-9 spermicides) can increase the risk of contacting an STI or HIV. An increased risk of urinary tract infections is also associated with these methods, but urinating before and after use and ensuring your cap or diaphragm is the correct size can reduce these risks.

This method of birth control is very affordable because the barriers are reusable and may last for as long as two years. Depending on the brand and the place of purchase, the cost can run anywhere from $15-$75. Unlike the condoms, these barrier methods must be prescribed by a doctor. Make an appointment at your local Planned Parenthood Health Center for a cervical barrier method.

For more information:
Diaphragms
FemCaps

Dental Dams
Another way to help protect against the transmission of STIs is through the use of dams. Dams, such as dental dams or the Sheer Glyde Dam, work as a protective barrier during oral sex. Dams may be harder to access than condoms, but they are available. Some pharmacies and many Planned Parenthood centers carry dams.

With so many safe sex options to choose from, everyone’s bound to find the right one. Which works best for you?

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5 responses to “Condoms, Caps and Dams . . . Barrier Methods for Everyone!

  1. I have heard that the insertive condom was especially designed for use in anal sex, but it was easier to market as a condom to be used by females in vaginal intercourse. I don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds plausible to me.

    In my Anatomy & Physiology class last year, we did an experiment with a latex condom and a sheepskin condom. We filled them with water colored with blue dye, tied them off, and then put them into beakers of water. The latex condom held the dye for the entire class period, but within mere minutes the dye inside sheepskin condom started leeching out into the water. This makes sense, as “sheepskin” is actually made from a sheep’s intestines. And, of course, intestines must be permeable to allow nutrients to pass through during digestion. So, while better than nothing, a sheepskin condom is not the ideal protection against STIs.

    • Anna, I’ve never heard that about insertive condoms. I’ve used them myself, and the rings are pretty wide – which makes me think that at least the brand I’ve used was designed with a vaginal opening in mind, rather than an anus.

    • Wow, I never realized how permeable sheep skin condoms are. I knew they are not the greatest for STI prevention but that’s good to know. Thanks for the information Anna.

  2. I am all about the dental dams. I know some people say that they don’t like the taste of latex, and that’s why they don’t use condoms or dental dams for oral sex, but I would much rather taste latex than . . . you know where I’m going with that sentence.

    It always surprises me when folks tell me they don’t use barrier methods for oral sex – even vigilant, educated, pro-choice folks. You can get herpes on your face, and lots of other STIs through oral sex . . . condoms aren’t just about preventing pregnancy.

    Try different flavors of condoms and dental dams until you find the flavor(s) you like. No harm in practicing safer sex, right?