6 Reasons Why Condoms Break and What to Do If It Does
From birth control pills to intrauterine devices (IUDs) to tracking your cycle, there are a slew of methods you can use to prevent pregnancy. But there's a reason why condoms have managed to stand the test of time. The first rubber condoms debuted in 1858, and today, they're still a go-to for a majority of sexually active people. In fact, the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data notes that nearly 60 percent of women and over 56 percent of men used only a condom and no other method during last intercourse in the past 12 months. But are they as reliable as they are popular?
External condoms (the type that go onto a penis) are only about 85 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, according to Planned Parenthood. For context, condoms are 98 percent effective when used perfectly, but, well, mistakes happen. That said, whether you're considering using condoms as your only or adjunct form of birth control, you could be wondering, how often condoms break? And when they do, why do condoms break? Not to mention, if they fail — what do you do if a condom breaks?
To help prevent unwanted pregnancy and protect yourself and your partner against STIs, here's what experts say you should know about why condoms break, how often condoms break, and what to do if a condom breaks.
How Often Do Condoms Break?
In the latest CDC data report on how often condoms break, 6.5 percent of female respondents who had used a condom in the last four weeks said the condom "broke or completely fell off during intercourse or withdrawal."
"Condom breakage is not a common occurrence — especially when used correctly," notes Justin Houman, MD, a board-certified urologist in Los Angeles and senior medical advisor at Hello Cake, a sexual health and wellness company that makes condoms. "The overall rate of breakage can vary based on factors such as the quality of the condom, the material it's made from, and how skillfully it's employed during sexual activity."
Can Condoms Fail Without Breaking?
When condoms break, you may notice an obvious tear or rip in the condom, or, if it's a much smaller breakage, you can sometimes see semen leaking out of the condom, explains Christy Evans, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn with Almond. But condoms can fail even without visible signs of breakage, Dr. Houman points out.
"This could result from incorrect usage or environmental factors," he notes. "For instance, using an expired condom, improper storage leading to deterioration of the material, or not leaving enough space at the tip for semen collection can all compromise the effectiveness of the condom without causing obvious damage."
Why Do Condoms Break?
Sure, this question may seem like a no-brainer. Friction, which goes hand-in-hand with intercourse, seems like the obvious cause for condom breakage. While that may be the most common cause, according to Dr. Evans, it's far from the only one. "There are all kinds of reasons why a condom may break," she points out. Besides friction, condoms may break because of the following reasons.
1. The condom is expired.
Condoms are often good for three to five years after their manufacture date, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. 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 Hello Cake.
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.
2. The condom has been stored in a way that makes it more susceptible to breakage.
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 CDC. 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.
3. You've opened the condom without care.
If you open a condom in a hurry or incorrectly, you risk ripping the condom itself. Dr. Evans adds, "Condoms can break if they get snagged by a nail or piercing or other sharp edges" — all of which could come into play and create a tear if you're not opening the condom cautiously enough. 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.
4. There is too much friction or lack of lubrication during sex.
Friction is, of course, 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," says Smith.
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. Check out our list of the best lube options here.
5. You aren't using the right kind of lube.
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." For some options, check out our list of the best lube options here.
6. The condom doesn't fit properly.
"Size really does matter," says Smith. "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.
What to Do If a Condom Breaks
In some cases, a broken condom might involve a change in sensation during intercourse, a sudden alteration in the fit, or even the feeling of semen leakage, Dr. Houman says. "However, not all breakages are immediately noticeable, emphasizing the importance of regular visual inspection and careful use," he adds. In other words, sometimes you won't realize the condom broke until you've stopped having sex. And in those instances, you should check in with your healthcare provider.
Here are some other steps you can take if a condom breaks:
1. Look into emergency contraception.
"If you're concerned about your risk of pregnancy, you'll want to consider emergency contraception," Dr. Evans says. Emergency contraception options include Plan B or Ella (both of which are "morning-after" pills taken orally), a copper IUD, or a levonorgestrel IUD. "You have up to five days after unprotected sex for these methods to work," she adds.
2. Get tested for STIs.
Additionally, if the condom failed with a new or nonmonogamous partner, both you and your partner should discuss STI testing with your doctors, Dr. Houman says.
"Most STIs won't be detectable right away," Dr. Evans notes. "You'll want to wait about two weeks before testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea [and] about a month for HIV, syphilis, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. I recommend that both partners test."
3. Take note of what might have happened to prevent the condom breaking again.
Remember: proper condom selection, correct application, and suitable lubrication can all contribute to reducing the risk of breakage, Dr. Houman says. So, after any condom failure, assess what might have happened to lead to the condom breaking, he says, and you'll be better prepared to avoid a similar incident down the road.
— Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo