Your Guide To Buying Condoms, Because Prioritizing Your Sexual Health Is A Flex

Taking care of your sexual health pleasure is actually a huge flex, but society doesn't make it easy to feel empowered while buying birth control. Condoms — the easiest kind of birth control to obtain and the kind with the least amount of side effects — are marketed almost exclusively to cisgender men, in everything from packaging design to description. "The products and shopping journey remains geared towards men and there is still a stigma attached to a woman buying and having her own condoms," Cécile Gasnault, brand director at SmileMakers, explained to Cosmopolitan UK.

The market continues to grow and change, and in recent years there's been an influx of startups and brands marketing condoms to women and femme people. However, it's still far from the norm. So, until femme-forward condoms become ubiquitous and the patriarchy ceases to exist, you'll likely have to make do with a pharmacy full of male-forward brands. To make the process easier, we break down everything you need to know about buying condoms so that you can be in complete control of your sexual health.

Know your options

When talking about condoms, people usually mean two different things. They are either talking about female condoms or male condoms. Female condoms are much less popular, due in part to the fact that they've only been around since the 1990s. A female condom is basically the opposite of a male condom. A female condom goes inside the vagina, and a male condom fits around the outside of the penis or phallic-shaped toys. Another key difference is the levels of effectiveness. Male condoms are roughly 82% effective at preventing pregnancy if used ideally, while studies have shown female condoms to be closer to 79% effective.

Condoms of both varieties, unlike many other forms of birth control, are a good option because they are highly effective and available without a prescription. Most importantly, out of all types of birth control, condoms (both male and female) are the best at preventing STDs. "Condoms act as a barrier which doesn't allow mixing of bodily fluids and decreases exposure of one partner's fluids from another," Dr. Randy S. Gelow told Banner Health. "Remember, between 50% to 80% of STIs have ZERO symptoms, so even if a partner states they have no symptoms or don't show any symptoms, this doesn't mean that they don't have an STI." Some scientists even think that female condoms might be slightly more effective than their male counterparts. Translation: unless you and your partner have just been tested, use a condom. 

Be mindful of materials

There are about a million different brands of condoms out there, and it can feel a little overwhelming when you're facing an entire aisle of them at the pharmacy. If you opt for external condoms (i.e. male condoms), experts recommend checking the ingredients of the brands before spending your money. A small percentage of people are allergic to latex. If you fall into this category, opt for lambskin or a different material. Even if you don't have a latex allergy, some ingredients in condoms can be toxic no matter your gender, so it's best to opt for something natural if you can.

"Chemicals, dyes, additives, sugar alcohols, preservatives, local anesthetics, spermicides, and other potentially carcinogenic ingredients are often included in standard condoms," Sherry Ross, MD, OB-GYN, a women's health expert, and author told Healthline. "Standard brands are not usually concerned about whether their ingredients are organic or natural." As our bodies absorb everything we put in them, using condoms with carcinogenic ingredients can be dangerous. Don't be nervous to try something non-name brand for the sake of safer ingredients. Organic options are just as effective as traditional brands and can be safer for you and your partner.

While condom manufacturers are unfortunately not required to list all the ingredients in their products, there are a few to look out for. Avoid condoms with nitrosamine (a known carcinogen), as well as glycerin and condoms with added spermicides — two ingredients that studies suggest do damage the vagina. 

What do the different textures mean?

The sheer variety of birth control methods can feel overwhelming, but sex isn't supposed to feel like a chore; It's supposed to be fun! When it comes to hitting the condom aisle, sex therapists recommend looking for two things: ribbed and lubricated. The texture of ribbed condoms (or the less common "dotted") can provide some of the sensations that using a condom may take out of penetration. "A textured condom can stimulate the nerves that are present in the vagina better than a nontextured condom does, which may enhance pleasure," Goody Howard, a sex educator, explained to Healthline.

Besides texture, a lubricated condom can be the difference between a great and a very uncomfortable sexual encounter. Lubrication — something the body tends to create itself — is a sign of arousal and a helpful aid for sex. However, a regular latex condom can sometimes feel too dry. To combat this, opt for a brand that factors lubrication into their product. "Any kind of condom with lubrication is always great, just because we can always use a little extra help. Why not?" said Jenni Skylar, a certified sex therapist, when speaking to Women's Health.

A lubed condom (or adding lube when using a regular condom) makes sex feel better and safer. "If you use a condom-friendly lube (i.e., water-based lube)," Angie Rowntree, founder of a sex-positive and ethical porn site, told Mind Body Green. "It can help prevent breakage and make condom use feel more pleasurable."