When it comes to pregnancy prevention, there are a variety of contraceptive options out there that function in different ways. One of the most popular — and easiest to get, since it’s available at any local drugstore — is the condom. It’s probably one of the first methods of birth control you learned about in your childhood or teenage years, not to mention the most widely accessible choice. But just how effective are condoms at preventing pregnancy? The answer might surprise you.
“Condoms are a useful form of birth control as they are affordable, easy to use, and they protect against STDs,” explains Dr. Adeeti Gupta, OB/GYN and founder of Walk In GYN Care. Unlike many forms of birth control that require a prescription, condoms can be easily purchased for around $8 per pack of 12 at drugstores and online, and kept on hand for when you need them. They can be worn on a penis, vagina, or mouth, depending on which type you choose, and they don’t require you to take any hormones, which make them an attractive option for people who don’t want to take a hormonal contraceptive. They’re also the best way to reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which is a very important reason to use them consistently — especially if you’re not in a monogamous sexual relationship where you’ve both been tested recently.
According to Planned Parenthood, condoms are 98% effective at preventing pregnancy — if you use them perfectly. But in reality, life isn’t perfect, and sometimes condoms break or people put them on the wrong way. So, Planned Parenthood estimates that condoms are actually only about 85% effective when factoring in human error. That means out of every 100 couples who use them, 15 will get pregnant.
If this number sounds scary to you, you’re not alone. That’s why other forms of birth control, many of which are more effective at preventing pregnancy, come in handy. Let’s say you’re using condoms regularly, but you want to feel more confident that you’re preventing pregnancy every single time you have sex. Try combining condoms with another form of birth control, such as the pill or an IUD. “Either use condoms in addition to the pill, or talk to your doctor about another form of birth control,” Gupta suggests. The condom will keep you protected against STIs, but you still have another method to fall back on for the sake of effectiveness.
It’s also important to make sure you’re using condoms the right way. “You need to remember to use them every time you have sex, and use them the entire time,” Gupta says. “Excessive friction can cause tears, and only water-based [or silicone] lubricants can be used.” Oil-based lubricants can break down latex and make the condom tear more easily.
There are also different options for condoms if you don’t want to use latex because of an allergy or preference. You can buy natural condoms with lambskin, or plastic versions made specifically to be latex-free. For STI protection, though, not all materials are created equal. “Latex condoms provide a barrier against STIs,” explains Dr. Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG. “Natural condoms, or those made of membranous materials, do not provide a barrier to STIs.” Do your research on specific condom brands and materials (or talk to your doctor) before you switch to a new type.
All in all, condoms are a useful contraceptive choice because they help with both pregnancy prevention and STI protection. However, they shouldn’t be used on their own without a second method as backup. “No one method of contraception is 100% effective,” Gaither says. But she notes that condoms are “readily available, easy to use, [and] inexpensive,” which makes them a great addition to your sexual health roster.