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Everything you need to know about female condoms

Because condoms aren’t just for penises, you know. 

female condom against a purple background

Many people will have their own story about their health teacher rolling a condom over a penis-shaped appendage during sex education class. It might have been your first introduction to birth control. But did you know that condoms aren’t only used by people with a penis? The female condom is a lesser-known barrier method that works in exactly the same way as the male condom and can be inserted in the vagina or anus during penetrative sex. 

As condoms are the only form of contraception that can protect you and your partner from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), they’re a really handy way you can practice safe sex. While they might be referred to as “female” condoms, internal condoms can be used by anyone

But if you aren’t familiar with internal condoms, fear not. Here, a Flo expert outlines everything you need to know, including what female condoms look like, where you can buy them, and most importantly, how to wear one. 

What are female condoms?

Female condoms go by a few names, including internal condoms and femidoms. Put simply, they’re condoms you can use inside your vagina or anus to protect yourself from unplanned pregnancies and STIs. You can use them if you have penetrative sex with either a penis or a sex toy. 

Despite being very effective, they’re not as popular as male or external condoms. So if you’ve never heard of or used an internal condom, then you’re not the only one. Dr. Jennifer Boyle, an obstetrician and gynecologist (OB-GYN), at Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts, US, suggests this might be because they don’t have the reputation that external (or male) condoms do. 

“An easy answer is that female condoms just haven’t been around for as long, given that they first came to market in the 1990s,” says Dr. Boyle. “An interesting historical tidbit, however, is that the first reported use of condoms in ancient times actually used female condoms and not external ones.” You can take that slice of trivia to your next pub quiz. 

And what do they look like? 

If you’ve never encountered a female condom, you might not even be sure what to look out for. Female condoms look fairly similar to their male counterparts. They’re shaped like a tube with two flexible rings at each end. One end is closed off, and this is the end you insert into your vagina. The other end remains open (so you can insert a toy or penis). You can think of it as a second lining to your vagina. 

They’re usually made of a soft, thin plastic called polyurethane, a type of rubber called nitrile, or latex. If you have any allergies to materials, like latex or rubber, it’s a really good idea to read the back of the condom packet before using them. 

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Female condoms vs. male condoms: What’s the difference? 

Once inserted, female condoms work in the same way that male condoms do. The only difference is that you insert the barrier protection inside yourself, rather than putting it over a penis or sex toy. 

A cool perk of wearing female condoms is also that they can be worn up to eight hours before having sex, while male condoms can only be worn right before penetrative sex on an erect penis.

Although female condoms are effective, male condoms have a slightly higher efficacy rate. Female condoms are thought to be around 95% effective if you use them absolutely perfectly every time. However, some people don’t use them correctly, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests that around 21% of people who use female condoms get pregnant, making them about 79% effective. This compares to around 18% of people who get pregnant when using male condoms (making them around 82% effective).

Another advantage of external condoms is that they’re generally easier to buy, as they’re commonly sold in stores. More on where you can access female condoms below. 

How do they work?

Female condoms are placed inside the vagina before sex. As we now know, they work by creating a physical barrier between a penis or sex toy and your vagina. They’re designed to be used once, so after you’ve been intimate, you should remove it and throw it away. 

“Female condoms have an inner ring that goes inside the vagina and an outer ring that stays outside of the vagina,” says Dr. Boyle. “The condom prevents sperm from entering the vagina as well as viruses and infections.”

If you don’t want to become pregnant, then it’s really important to fully understand your different contraceptive options. But birth control aside, it’s also vital to think about sexually transmitted infections. So, will female condoms protect you from STIs in the same way that male condoms do? 

“They have been found to be just as good at preventing STIs as male condoms,” says Dr. Boyle. “They may be even better than male condoms in this regard because they cover some of the external vulva skin [the skin you can see around your genitals]. This could theoretically decrease the risk of getting some STIs such as HPV and herpes, but this has not been proven in medical studies,” she adds. 

Who can use female condoms?

The wonderful thing about birth control is that there are so many options, and what might be a great fit for you may not necessarily work for someone else. There’s no such thing as one size fits all. Internal condoms are really versatile in what they can be used for, which broadens the number of people who could potentially use them. You can use them in your vagina, but you can also use them during anal sex. Just make sure that you use two separate condoms if you move from having penetrative vaginal sex to anal sex. 

Since you can wear female condoms for up to eight hours before intercourse, some people enjoy not having to pause before sex to use a condom. You might also prefer internal condoms if you feel more comfortable being in control of contraception that can prevent STIs. “Female condoms are the only woman-controlled birth control method that is nonhormonal and does not require a doctor visit, prescription, or the use of spermicides, which some people find irritating to the vagina,” says Dr. Boyle. 

“Women who use the female condom like the control and empowerment that it creates. They don’t have to rely on their partner to bring or put on a condom [and] don’t have to worry that his condom broke or slipped off or whatever,” she continues.

Dr. Boyle adds that some people prefer to use internal condoms because they prevent “stealthing,” a form of sexual abuse where a person takes off a condom during sex without consent. If you’ve experienced this and would like to speak to someone, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline in the United States or the Survivors Trust in the United Kingdom.  

How to correctly use them

So now that you know what female condoms look like and why they might be a good fit for you, how exactly do you use one? Around 21% of people who use internal condoms get pregnant, so it’s really important that you’re confident about how to insert one. And if you need to put one in as a practice run before using it in an intimate situation, that could be a sensible idea. 

woman holding a female condom

“Before opening the package, gently massage to move around the lubricant that comes with the condom,” says Dr. Boyle. Then carefully tear open the wrapper and remove the condom. It might look bigger than you expected, but don’t worry. The material is really flexible and is made to bend. 

Take the end that’s closed and fold it so it is narrower in width and will fit into the opening of your vagina. Slide it as far as you can inside you. It should rest against your cervix (the small, doughnut-shaped passage that connects your uterus to your vagina). You might find it most comfortable to insert an internal condom lying down on the bed or standing up and squatting. But remember: “Your vagina goes back toward your spine, not up toward your belly button,” Dr. Boyle says. “This will help you find the right angle.” 

Once inserted, you’ll be able to see the outer, open ring of an internal condom at your vaginal opening. If it’s your first time using one, Dr. Boyle recommends parting the opening of the condom and guiding the penis or sex toy into it. “You need to make sure that the penis enters inside of the condom and not on the side of it,” she explains. Otherwise, the condom won’t be effective. 

You will also need to use extra lubrication when you’re using female condoms. This is because the condom covers the walls of your vagina, which naturally become moist when you’re aroused. To learn all about your different lube options, check out this article. 

Like male condoms, female condoms can’t be reused, so throw the condom in the trash after use. 

What are the pros and cons of using female condoms? 

No birth control method is perfect, nor will all methods work for everyone. The key is finding the best contraception for your body and lifestyle. Below are some pros and cons you might want to think about when looking into internal condoms. 

Advantages of using female condoms

  • You only need to use them whenever you want to have penetrative sex, and they can be inserted up to eight hours before intercourse.  
  • They aren’t a hormonal method of birth control, which means if you don’t like using contraception that has versions of the hormones estrogen or progesterone, then female condoms could be a good option for you. 
  • You don’t need a doctor’s prescription or appointment to access internal condoms. 
  • You don’t have to worry about the condom coming off if your partner loses their erection during sex.
  • Internal condoms may comfort you in the knowledge that you’re in control of the safe sex you’re having. 
  • The external ring of the female condom can create extra clitoral stimulation during intercourse, which can increase sexual pleasure. 

Disadvantages of using female condoms

  • It can take a little while to learn how to insert female condoms correctly. 
  • They’re not quite as effective at preventing pregnancy as other birth control methods, such as male condoms, the contraceptive pill, or intrauterine device
  • They can be harder to find in stores than male condoms. 
  • During sex, you need to ensure the penis goes inside the condom and not between the condom and the vagina. You may just need to double-check this before starting intercourse. 
  • While the material that makes internal condoms is strong, it can still tear if it’s not inserted correctly. 

Where to buy them and why they are so hard to find

Female condoms aren’t as widely available as male condoms, but it’s unclear why. In the United States, female condoms may be hard to find because FC2 is the only brand approved by the Food and Drug Administration. You may be able to access them at your OB-GYN’s office, in stores, or online. In the United Kingdom, you can get free female condoms from NHS clinics or buy them online. 

Female condoms: The takeaway

The female condom, also referred to as an internal condom, is a barrier method of birth control. It’s made of thin plastic or rubber and worn inside the vagina during penetrative sex. You might not be as familiar with them as male condoms, but they’re still a really effective way of preventing unplanned pregnancies and STIs.

Hopefully, we’ve helped to weigh up some of the pros and cons of female condoms so you can decide whether they’re something that might work for you. Internal condoms may give you the feeling that you’re taking your safe sex practices into your own hands. But with so many options out there, finding the right birth control method for you is the most important thing. Good luck!

Written by Olivia Cassano

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