Condoms are one of the best forms of birth control because they're cheap, you can buy them anywhere, they help prevent pregnancy, and they also help stop the spread of STIs. But still, they aren't perfect.
Condoms can break and are also prone to user error (such as putting them on incorrectly or choosing the wrong size). For that reason, external condoms (the kind that goes onto a penis) are only about 85 percent effective at preventing pregnancy in real life, according to Planned Parenthood — that's compared to 98 percent effective with perfect use.
To help prevent unwanted pregnancy and protect yourself and your partner against STIs, you should make sure you know how to use a condom properly, as well as the necessary steps you can take to prevent them from breaking.
Why Condoms Break
- The condom is past its prime. Condoms are often good for three to five years after their manufacture date, but they do expire. Be sure to check your condom wrappers for the expiration date and take note so that you can use them before that date, explains Carrie Smith, vice president of product development at Cake, a sexual health and wellness company that makes condoms. If a condom is expired, the material (whether latex, polyurethane, or lambskin) may have degraded and lost its strength and will be more likely to tear. There should be a little air bubble in the package that you can feel if you lightly squeeze the wrapper, according to Planned Parenthood. This signifies that the package has not broken open, and so the condom itself will be in good condition. If a condom is torn, dry, stiff, or sticky, toss it.
- Storage issues. Depending on where you keep your condoms, they could be more prone to breaking. "Uneven heating and cooling can weaken the latex, making way for the possibility of breaking through the condom during penetration," Smith says. For that reason, condoms shouldn't be kept in hot places such as a glove compartment or a wallet. In the case of the latter, friction can also damage them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, keep condoms in a cool, dry place where they're not being rubbed, bent, or smashed, such as your medicine cabinet or nightstand. Or if you're on the go, you can store them in a small compartment of your bag or purse.
- Opening it without care. If you open a condom in a hurry or incorrectly, you risk ripping the condom itself. Never tear open a condom with your teeth or scissors, according to Planned Parenthood. Instead, carefully push the condom out of the way while you tear the package open carefully according to the instructions.
- Too much friction or lack of lubrication during sex. Friction is part of what makes sex pleasurable — but in this case, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. "Too much friction can not only cause the condom to tear but can also cause irritation to one or both partners," Smith says. To help prevent condom breakage, lubrication is a must. This is especially important during anal sex, since the anus doesn't produce its own lubrication like the vagina does. Be sure to use lubricated condoms or use extra lube if you need to. "A good lube can make a huge difference in reducing friction," Smith explains.
- You're using the wrong lubricant. If you're using latex condoms, oil-based lubricants can weaken the material and cause a tear. That means no using coconut oil, massage oils, or arousal oils. "Oil-based lubes should never be used with [latex] condoms as oil degrades the material and can lead to tearing," Smith says. "Silicone, water-based, or hybrid lubes are also a great choice for condom use. Experiment using different lube types and see which feels the best for you and with your condom."
- The condom doesn't fit. "Size really does matter," Smith says. "Slippage occurs when using a condom that's too long or loose, and tearing can happen if you are using a condom that is too tight or too short." Experiment with different-sized condoms to get a snug fit — not too tight and not too loose.