What Is A Dental Dam? Here’s Everything You Need To Know, Because These Contraceptives Are Literally For Everyone

I hate the dentist. I'll give a big "thank u, next" to pumice powder and fingers in my mouth. And don't even get me started on the flossing guilt-talk. Nothing about the dentist appeals to me, which is perhaps why it took me so long to learn about the inner workings of rubber contraceptive sheets, commonly deemed "dental dams." If you're wondering what's a dental dam or why it's pertinent to your sex life, you, my friend, are not alone.

The six-inch square sheets of latex, are used for protection during all kinds of oral sex — including Fellatio, cunnilingus, and, as Cardi B would say, eating a*s like soufflé. Invented in the 1800s as a tool for dentists to block the rest of a patient's mouth, the dental dam was "rebranded" as an oral sex contraceptive during the HIV epidemic in the '80s. In 1986, the device was cited in a New York Times article titled, "Women and AIDS: Discussing Precautions," one of the first major media outlets to give a little shout to the dam.

I spoke to sex educator McKenna Maness, the former education and prevention coordinator at The Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP), about everything you need to know about dental dams.

So, what is a dental dam?

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Dental dams are protective square sheets often made of latex. "They are used to create a physical barrier on a vagina or anus, mainly for oral sex (cunnilingus or anilingus)," Maness says. "They're for preventing STIs and aren't mainly used for penetrative sex, so they aren't a good choice for preventing pregnancy. Sperm can't pass through them but they're not mainly a pregnancy prevention tool." Creating a physical barrier, dental dams can provide added protection when getting it on.

How are they used?

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In every good teen movie there's a health class scene featuring students rolling condoms over bananas. Unfortunately, dental dam demonstrations are less common in the classroom. It can feel intimidating to use a dam for the first time (or first 100 times!) ,but Maness breaks it down.

"Dental dams are placed over a vagina or anus and can be held flat by either partner — giving or receiving," Maness says. "They don't need to be stretched out or anything. They're literally a flat piece of rubber — you may have seen them in a dentist office as they can be used to isolate a tooth."

A dental dam doesn't need to be stretched or moved around too much — and incorporating your partner into holding it can add a sexy twist.

Why are they used?

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Dental dams are used for a variety of reasons. "They're used to prevent sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, HPV, herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, and hepatitis! People tend to think that oral sex doesn't transmit STIs as readily, but all these infections can be transmitted orally," Maness says. "Some places, when testing for STIs, will ask you to swab 'any part of your body involved in sex' to make sure that they find and treat any STIs. Again, you can get several STIs through oral sex, from chlamydia, HPV, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes and hepatitis (HIV isn't usually transmitted through oral sex)."

While you may love doggy, reverse cowgirl, or any other positions, the sexiest sex is always sex that's safe and consensual. Talking about STIs and contraceptives can feel intimidating, but is super important in making sure everybody involved is on the same page.

Who are they for?

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Don't get it twisted: Gender is a social construct and everyone should do what feels right. However, it's important to mention that overtime, there have been some serious gender misconceptions attached to dental dams that Maness seriously debunks.

"It's a major misconception that dental dams are only used by lesbians or bi women — or that people with vaginas can't transmit STIs to another vagina," Maness says. "Everyone should carry dental dams with the frequency condoms are carried. Everyone has an anus, so everyone has a use for dental dams! They're an essential protective barrier for cunnilingus or anilingus on someone who you aren't fluid bonded to or who's STI status is unknown."

According to Maness, dental dams are an essential contraceptive, for all bodies!

Where can you buy them?

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Although they are important tools for safer sex, dental dams can be a little tricky to find.

"They're so much harder to find then condoms, and they cost more, so they're purchased less often by sexual health orgs," Maness says. "They're cheaper on the clearinghouse/ bulk websites that sexual health orgs get them from."

If you still make sure to use self-checkout when buying contraceptives, so you don't need to look the cashier in the eye, you may be a little sheepish about buying a bunch of dams. Maness shared that you can buy dams online, and have them sent directly to your home.

"You can buy them on Amazon, or at some sex stores or adult websites, some drugstores, or Planned Parenthood," Maness says.

Can you use a dental dam on your period?

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Let's get real — can you use a dam when having sex on your period? According to Maness, it may actually be preferable to do so!

"Dental dams would be great for period sex! If you're grossed out by blood, it would be a great way to keep a barrier between your mouth and the vagina you're going down on," Maness says.

If it's your time of the month, but it's also time to get it on, using something like a dam could be a great way to get it on without getting too messy.

Does using a dental dam make it harder to orgasm?

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Anti-contraceptive rhetoric often centers around contraceptives making it harder to finish. Yet, according to Maness, the sexiest sex means safe sex.

"Honestly, some people do think dental dams 'dull sensation' but honestly, that just means your partner may have to work a little harder," Maness says. "And neither of you will get an STI from the oral sex you're having soooo. . ."

When you're having sex that's protected and consensual, you and your partner(s) can keep it frisky while still staying safe.

What are substitutes for a dental dam?

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If you don't have a literal dental dam on hand, Maness attests you can do some DIY action.

"As a substitute, you can do surgery on a condom — you snip the tip part off (the part that makes it look like a tiny hat when it sits in your hand) and then unroll and cut a straight line from the snipped tip to the ring," Maness says. "It makes a little latex/polyurethane square that works just the same as a dental dam! It may be cheaper, but it is more involved."

Of course, Maness emphasizes that you must be cautious when making you own dams, "You want to be super careful not to puncture any holes in the condom, besides the cuts you make," Maness says. Creating holes in the dam can allow for STIs to make their way through.

How many times can you use a dental dam?

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Unlike a diaphragm or reusable contraceptives, Maness shares dams are a one time only thing, "Like condoms, they should really only be used once!" Maness says. According to Maness, like condoms, dams should be thrown away after one use.

Safe sex can mean a lot of things: consent, open dialogue, and of course, contraceptives. If you and your boo(s) are into getting it on orally, using dental dams may be a great option for keeping things safe when it's going down. And unlike the literal dentist, when it comes to sex with dental dams — you'll want to keep coming more than twice a year.