How do I use a condom?

Condoms are the best way to protect yourself against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancy.

Condoms are a barrier contraceptive made from latex rubber, a synthetic rubber called polyisoprene, or a very thin plastic called polyurethane.

Condoms are available free from:

  • contraception clinics
  • sexual health or (GUM) genitourinary medicine clinics
  • some GP surgeries
  • some young people’s services

You can also buy condoms from:

  • shops
  • pharmacies
  • supermarkets
  • websites
  • mail order catalogues
  • vending machines in some public toilets
  • some petrol stations

Always buy condoms that carry the British Standards Institution (BSI) kitemark or the European CE symbol as proof of quality.

This means they have been tested to the required safety standards.

Also, check that the expiry date is clearly visible on the packet.

Types of condom

There are 2 basic types of condom available in the UK: male and female.

The female condom is sometimes called a femidom because Femidom is its brand name in the UK.

Male condoms

During sex, male condoms are worn on the penis to prevent semen (sperm) entering the woman’s vagina when the man ejaculates (comes).

The condom should be put on when the penis is erect (hard) and before it comes into contact with your partner’s body.

To use a male condom correctly, follow these steps:

  • Carefully open the foil packaging that the condom is wrapped in, taking care not to tear the condom.
  • Hold the tip of the condom between your forefinger and thumb to make sure it’s put on the right way round and no air is trapped inside (the condom may split if air is trapped inside).
  • Place the condom over the tip of the penis.
  • While squeezing the tip of the condom, roll it down over the length of the erect penis.
  • If the condom will not unroll, it’s probably on inside out – start again with a new condom as there may be sperm on it.

Make sure that the condom stays in place while you’re having sex. If it comes off, stop and put on a new one.

After ejaculation (when the man has come) and while the penis is still hard, hold the condom in place and carefully withdraw the penis from your partner’s body.

You should only take the condom off the penis when there’s no further contact with your partner’s body.

Wrap the used condom in a tissue and put it in the bin. You should never flush condoms down the toilet as they may block the toilet and can cause environmental damage.





Female condoms

Female condoms allow women to share the responsibility of choosing what type of contraception to use before having sex with their partner.

Female condoms can be inserted at any time before sex, but must always be inserted before the penis touches the genital area.

To use a female condom, follow these steps:

  • Carefully remove the female condom from its packaging, taking care not to tear it.
  • Place the closed end of the condom into the vagina, holding the soft inner ring between your forefinger or middle finger and thumb.
  • Use your other hand to separate the folds of skin (labia) around the vagina, then put the squeezed ring into the vagina.
  • Put your index or middle finger or both in the open end of the condom until the inner ring can be felt and push the condom as far up the vagina as possible, with the outer ring lying against the outside of the vagina.
  • The outer ring of the condom should rest closely on the outside of the vagina at all times during sex – if the outer ring gets pushed inside the vagina, stop and put it back in the right place.
  • Make sure that the penis goes in the condom – take care to make sure that the penis does not go between the condom and the wall of the vagina.

Immediately after sex, slightly twist and pull the end of the condom to remove it, taking care not to spill any sperm inside the vagina.

If this happens, you’ll need to seek advice about emergency contraception from your GP or pharmacist.

Wrap the condom in a tissue and throw it away in a bin, not in the toilet.


Condoms come lubricated to make them easier to use, but you may like to use additional lubricant (lube).

This is particularly advised for anal sex to reduce the chance of the condom splitting.

If you use a lubricant when having sex, make sure it’s water based. Oil-based lubricants, such as lotion or baby oil, can damage latex and polyisoprene condoms, and increase the likelihood that they’ll break.




What to do if your condom splits

If your condom splits while you’re having sex, you should visit your GP or go to your local sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic as soon as possible, as you may need emergency contraception.

Emergency contraception, such as the emergency pill or the intrauterine device (IUD), can be used to prevent pregnancy.

Emergency contraception is available free from contraception clinics, GPs that provide contraception services, Brook clinics, sexual health clinics and some GUM clinics, but not all are able to fit the IUD.

The emergency contraceptive pill Levonelle and ellaOne can be bought from most pharmacies, and some provide it free to young people.





Keeping your vagina clean and healthy.

The vagina is designed to keep itself clean with the help of natural secretions (discharge). Find out how to help your vagina keep clean and healthy, and why you don’t need douches or vaginal wipes.

The vagina is a tube of muscle inside a woman’s body that runs from the cervix (the opening of the womb) to the vaginal opening.

The external sex organs, which are called the vulva, surround the vaginal opening.

Looking after your everyday health can help keep your vagina in good shape, says Dr Suzy Elneil, consultant in urogynaecology at University College Hospital, London, and spokesperson for Wellbeing of Women.

“Generally, good vaginal health is maintained by making sure you’re in good general health,” she explains. “This includes a healthy diet and exercise.

“Normal exercise helps maintain good vaginal function, as walking and running helps the pelvic floor to tone up and ensure good general health.”



Vaginal secretions or discharge

Other than your period as part of your natural menstrual cycle, it’s normal to produce clear or white secretions (discharge) from your vagina.

This mucus is produced naturally from the neck of the womb, known as the cervix.

“Vaginal discharge is not ‘always a bad sign’,” says Dr Elneil. “There is a myth that copious clear or white discharge is associated with sexually transmitted infections.

“Changes in the amount of discharge can be 100% hormonal – in other words, linked to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy or menopause.”

The character and amount of vaginal discharge varies throughout your menstrual cycle.

Around the time your ovary releases an egg (ovulation), your discharge usually becomes thicker and stretchy, like raw egg white.

Healthy discharge doesn’t have a strong smell or colour. You may feel an uncomfortable wetness, but you shouldn’t have any itching or soreness around your vagina.

If there are any changes to your discharge that aren’t normal for you, such as a change in colour or it starts to smell or itch, see your GP as you might have an infection.

Bacteria in the vagina

There are lots of bacteria inside the vagina, and they’re there to protect it.

Professor Ronnie Lamont, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says: “The vagina contains more bacteria than anywhere else in the body after the bowel, but the bacteria are there for a reason.”

The good bacteria inside the vagina:

  • provide “numerical dominance” – they outnumber other potential harmful bacteria that might enter the vagina
  • help keep the vagina’s pH balance (how acidic the vagina is) at an even level, which helps keep the balance of bacteria healthy
  • can produce bacteriocins (naturally occurring antibiotics) to reduce or kill other bacteria entering the vagina
  • produce a substance that stops invading bacteria sticking to the vagina walls, which prevents bacteria invading the tissues

If the balance of bacteria is disturbed, this can lead to infection and inflammation.

Bacteria called lactobacilli help keep the vagina’s pH balance at its normal low level (less than pH 4.5), which also prevents the growth of other organisms.

If the pH of the vagina increases (it gets less acidic), the quality or amount of lactobacilli can fall and other bacteria can multiply.

This can result in infections such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush, which can cause symptoms including itching, irritation and abnormal discharge.


Washing your vagina

It’s a good idea to avoid perfumed soaps, gels and antiseptics as these can affect the healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels in the vagina and cause irritation.

Use plain, unperfumed soaps to wash the area around the vagina (the vulva) gently every day.

The vagina will clean itself inside your body with natural vaginal secretions (discharge).

“During your period, washing more than once a day may be helpful,” says Dr Elneil, who points out that keeping the perineal area between the vagina and anus clean is important, too.

“Good perineal hygiene is necessary by washing that area at least once a day using your normal bathing routines.”

“All women are different,” says Professor Lamont. “Some may wash with perfumed soap and not notice any problems.

“But if a woman has vulval irritation or symptoms, one of the first things you can do is use non-allergenic, plain soaps to see if that helps.”





Vaginal douches

A douche flushes water up into the vagina, clearing out vaginal secretions. Some women use a douche to “clean” the vagina.

But using a douche can disrupt the normal vaginal bacteria, so it isn’t recommended that you use one.

“I can’t think of any circumstances where douches are helpful, because all they do is wash out everything that’s in the vagina, including all the healthy bacteria,” explains Professor Lamont.

There’s no evidence that douching protects against STIs or vaginal infections, and it may even increase the risk.

Scented wipes and vaginal deodorants

These perfumed products can disrupt the vagina’s healthy natural balance.

“If nature had intended the vagina to smell like roses or lavender, it would have made the vagina smell like roses or lavender,” says Professor Lamont.

Washing with water and a plain soap should be all you need to keep your vagina healthy. It’s normal for the vagina to have a scent.

“Vaginal odour can change at different times of the reproductive cycle and shouldn’t always be thought of as being a sign of infection or illness,” says Dr Elneil.

If you’re worried about the way your vagina smells, the smell is unpleasant or you’re using perfumed products to cover up your vagina’s smell, you should see your GP. You might have an infection that needs treatment.

The most common cause of unusual vaginal discharge is bacterial vaginosis, which can cause an unpleasant smell. It’s easily treated with antibiotics, so see your GP if you’re worried.




Safer sex

Some bacteria and viruses can get into the vagina during sex.

These include the bugs that cause chlamydiagonorrhoeagenital herpesgenital wartssyphilis and HIV.

You can protect your vagina against these infections by using a condom every time you have sex.

Cervical screening

All women aged from 25 to 64 are invited for cervical screening.

Being screened regularly means any abnormal changes in the cervix can be identified early on and, if necessary, treated to stop cancer developing.


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