Male condoms as a barrier method of birth control

The male condom is a barrier method of birth control. The condom is placed over the man's erect penis before intercourse. Condoms are also called “rubbers,” “sheaths,” or “skins.”

Condoms are made of latex (rubber), polyurethane, or sheep intestine. While latex and polyurethane condoms help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as HIV, sheep intestine condoms do not.

Condoms are currently the only male method of birth control besides vasectomy. To more effectively prevent pregnancy, use a condom with a more effective birth control method such as hormonal contraception, an intrauterine device (IUD), a diaphragm with spermicide, or another female barrier method. Any spermicide that you use with a condom or other barrier method is not put inside the condom.

It is important to follow the directions for using condoms correctly.

Nonprescription method

Condoms do not require a visit to a health professional or a prescription. Condoms are sold in drugstores, family planning clinics, and many other places, including vending machines in some restrooms. There are many different kinds of condoms. Some condoms are lubricated, some are ribbed, and some have a “reservoir tip” for holding the semen. You can also buy condoms of different sizes. Condoms that are coated with spermicide are not recommended because they may irritate the woman's vagina.

Effectiveness in preventing pregnancy

The male condom, if used without spermicide, has a user failure rate (typical use) of 15%. This means that, among all couples that use condoms, 15 per 100 become pregnant in 1 year. Among couples who use condoms perfectly for 1 year, only 2 per 100 will become pregnant.1

Condoms that are sold with a coating of spermicide are no more effective than condoms without it. The most common reason for failure, besides not using a condom every time, is that the condom breaks or partially or completely slips off the penis. Slippage occurs more often than breakage, usually when a condom is too large.

Use emergency contraception as a backup if a condom breaks or slips off.

Effectiveness in preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

Male condoms reduce the risk of spreading sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Condoms are often used to reduce the risk of STDs even when the couple is using another method of birth control (such as pills).

“Natural” or sheep intestine condoms are as effective as latex or polyurethane condoms for preventing pregnancy, but they are not effective against STDs because the small openings in the animal tissue allow organisms to pass through.

Advantages of male condoms

  • They are the most effective protection available against STDs.
  • They do not affect future fertility for either the woman or the man.
  • They are used only at the time of sexual intercourse.
  • They are safe to use while a woman is breast-feeding.
  • They are less expensive than hormonal methods of birth control.
  • They may reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
  • They are widely available without a prescription.
  • They may help prevent a man from having an orgasm too quickly (premature ejaculation).
  • Because a few women are allergic to their partner's semen, use of condoms keeps semen from touching the woman's vagina.

Disadvantages of male condoms

Failure rates for barrier methods are higher than for most other methods of birth control. Other disadvantages include the following:

  • Some people are embarrassed to use condoms or feel they may interrupt foreplay or intercourse.
  • The couple must be comfortable with using a condom and be prepared to use one every time they have sex.
  • Condoms may decrease sexual sensation for the man or the woman.
  • Some people are allergic to latex (rubber). These couples should use condoms made of polyurethane (plastic).
  • The rate of breakage or leakage is as high as 1 in 100 for some brands of condoms. Using an additional method of birth control is a good backup measure in case a condom breaks. If a condom does break and you are using no other birth control method, you can use emergency contraception to help prevent pregnancy.

The emergency contraceptive Plan B (sometimes called the "morning-after pill") is available in most pharmacies.

  • If you are 17 or older, you can get Plan B without a prescription. Bring proof of your age.
  • If you are younger than 17, you can get Plan B with a prescription from a health professional.


  1. Trussell J (2004). The essentials of contraception: Efficacy, safety, and personal considerations. In RA Hatcher et al., eds., Contraceptive Technology, 18th ed., pp. 221–252. New York: Ardent Media.

Last Updated: May 22, 2008

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