Condom breaking is actually not a common occurrence. Especially if you are storing and using them properly. However, it happens, and when it does, it sure is a stressful experience. There is the risk of sexually transmissible infections (STIs) and if barrier methods are your only form of contraception, then there is the risk of an unplanned pregnancy. This puts your physical/sexual health at risk, but a broken condom can put a strain on your mental health. As this is an experience you can do a lot to prevent, let’s learn about how we can store and use our condoms properly and make sure we are doing all we can to have safer sex.
*Now this is just a reminder that condoms (internal and external) and dental dams are the only forms of safe sex. No sex is truly safe sex, even condoms are not 100% effective so we have to do what we can to have safer sex. *
There are few reasons a condom can break:
All condoms have an expiry date! If an item of food has an expiry date, you wouldn’t eat that expired food. The same mentality for condoms. It’s not a “best before” date or guideline on when you should try and use by. Once an expiry date has passed, condoms become less effective. The lube can only last well for a certain amount of time, and once expired, condoms become weaker and drier, and a dry condom is not going to be an effective one. Check it before you use it! Check the ones that you have held on to, if you’ve had them for a while, most likely they have expired and need to be thrown out. Depending on the brand, condoms can last for years, but there is no guarantee that every single condom will have the same shelf life, they each will have different ingredients and additives that can affect how long they last. If you bought some before the pandemic spread and lockdowns ensued, check those condoms!
Being left out in the sun, warm temperatures in general, big changes in temperature, moisture, sunlight, and storage can all affect the efficacy of the condom. So, when you see in a show or movie, someone carrying a condom in their wallet for years on end, don’t follow suit! Don’t store your condoms in your wallet or purse, a tight, warm environment is not going to be a place that will preserve that condom. The nature of the tight space can also pull or stretch the condom, and you don’t want to be putting pressure on a condom’s strength before you use it. Even your bathroom can be too humid of an environment to store your condoms. Also, condoms that you get at festivals may not be the best to use. As much as it is a great idea to promote safer sex at festivals, if those condoms have been lying in the sun for long amounts of time, then their properties may have changed. Keep your condoms in a dry place, that is not in direct sunlight.
This includes nails, piercings, teeth, scissors, etc. Don’t open a condom with scissors or your teeth. You might think it’s hot to rip open the condom with your teeth, but having a broken condom is not so sexy. It’s best to use your hands, push the condom to one side inside the packaging, and gently rip open the packet on the side you have moved the condom away from. If you have long or sharp nails, be careful of how you handle the condom.
If you are using a latex or polyisoprene condom, you shouldn’t use an oil-based lubricant with that condom. You should instead use a water-based or silicone-based lube. The oil-based lube will cause the condom material to break down or split, rendering it not effective. Oil-based lubes aren’t the only ones made specifically as lubes, this category also includes things like coconut oil, baby oil, or vaseline (basically anything with an oil or petroleum jelly in it). If you are not sure what material your condom is made of (you can check the packaging) but it is always safest to go with a water-based lube, as that will be compatible with condoms and sex toys.
Not enough lubrication can cause friction, and friction can lead to breakages. If you need more lubrication, see that last section to choose a lube type that can assist. Lube is always a great addition to sex.
Doubling up condoms on top of one another does not make the sex safer, in fact, it makes the sex more unsafe because it can break the condoms. It can cause enough friction for them to break or tear. This goes for using two external condoms on top of one another and using an internal and external condom together. One condom is optimal for safer sex.
This is another case of friction. Now, this is about external condoms, if a condom is too snug, the friction can cause the condom to break. Remember when I said not to store the condom in a tight space, same principles are used here. Let’s not test the strength of a condom, if it feels too tight, you need to try a bigger size. Sizing up is not about the length of a penis (external condoms) but more so the girth. Keep that in mind when thinking about what condoms to purchase for yourself or a partner.
Putting a condom on the wrong way, and then reusing it by putting it on the right way can cause tears (or more likely microtears). The friction caused by pushing the condom against the grain, against how it should go can affect the efficacy of the condom in this scenario too (if you haven’t picked up yet, the friction is really a big condom killer).
Rarely, you won’t notice a tear or a split condom after you have finished having sex. Most times when they break, you’ll be able to feel it as you or your partner pull out (or even during sex), or you’ll be able to see the tear. If the condom is on a dildo, then you have to rely on sight to check for tears. It’s good practice to check as you put the condom to check for holes or tears. If during sex, you feel something change, the sensation change is a good indication if a condom has broken, so put a pause on the sex and pull out to inspect the condom. Check if you change positions too. After sex, be careful during the removal process (remember about puncturing) and check to see for holes as you go to dispose of it. If the condom is leaking, then you have just been given the biggest sign that there has been a break.
Your obvious concerns are going to be around STIs, and pregnancy as mentioned earlier. Those we can tackle by going to a doctor and getting an STI screen and a pregnancy test. Pregnancy tests can also be purchased from a chemist or pharmacist, if you or your partner are even slightly unsure about your STI status, getting an STI screen is a must, and you may as well get a pregnancy test too while you are at the doctor's. Both you and your partner should get tested, regardless of who is concerned about getting pregnant. Knowing your individual STI status is always important, particularly if you are having sex with multiple people.
Now there is also a “window period” when infections may not be picked up. What this means is there is a period of time between being exposed to a bacterium/virus and a test being able to pick up that you have been infected. Some STIs can be detected within a week of possible exposure, but others like HIV and syphilis are only detectable 2 weeks post-exposure. So, consider this when you go get tested and you can even ask your doctor about window periods and whether you may need to get tested again to consider these window periods. Getting tested regularly if you are sleeping with multiple partners is a good routine to be in so that can help cover you if you are worried about window periods.
If an unplanned pregnancy is a concern of yours, then you’ll want to consider emergency contraception. There are two types of emergency contraception. The oral option is what is often known as the morning-after pill. It works by delaying or stopping ovulation for that cycle (i.e. the release of an egg). There are two types of these pills (the levonorgestrel emergency contraceptive pill and the ulipristal acetate emergency contraceptive pill) which, in Australia, can be purchased without a prescription. Each pill is given to you by pharmacist based on how long ago it was that you had unprotected sex and even based on a brief medical history description (pharmacists will often have some questions for you to answer so they can make sure they give you a pill that your body won’t have an adverse reaction to or react with other medications you are taking). The levonorgestrel pill can be taken within 3 days or 72 hours post unprotected sex, and the ulipristal acetate pill can be taken within 5 days or 120 hours post unprotected sex.
You should not use both types of the morning after pill within the same menstrual cycle. You should not use emergency contraceptive pills as a regular form of contraception. It was not made for that purpose. If you need to use it more than 3 times in the span of a year, it might be best to re-evaluate what contraceptive method is best for you.
A copper intrauterine device (IUD) can also be used as an emergency contraception. It works by releasing copper which changes the lining of the uterus and makes it hard for the sperm and egg to meet and for a fertilized egg to stick to the uterine lining (which would start a pregnancy). It works as soon as it is put in, and can be used as a regular form of (non-hormonal) contraception. It lasts for 5-10 years and can be inserted 5 days or 120 hours after unprotected sex to be used as emergency contraception.
The morning after pills and the copper IUD have a time frame they can be used as effective emergency contraception, so this means there is another “window period” for you to remember before those 5 days run out!
Emergency contraception methods don’t impact your fertility and are quite effective. The copper IUD is the most effective, being over 99% effective and the morning after pill is 85% effective in preventing pregnancy. If you vomit soon after taking a morning-after pill, this will reduce how effective the pill is. Talk through these things, including side effects, how it will affect your cycle, your concerns, and what method may be the best for you with a doctor, pharmacist, or relevant healthcare professional. All bodies are different and will react differently to different methods, and a professional can direct you to the best option for you.
If you are concerned about condom breaking, it all comes down to using and storing your condoms correctly.
If you remember these tips, your condoms will hold up well! But remember, if a condom breaks, remember those STIs and emergency contraception window periods and GET TESTED!
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