5 Sexual Barrier Options You May Want To Consider

This article was originally published on March 14, 2016.

Among American women, condoms are currently the third most popular form of contraception (after the pill and sterilization). While condoms are certainly a great option — they're 98% effective at preventing pregnancy and protect against STIs — there's a whole plethora of lesser-known sexual barriers out there that are worth considering for the sake of sexual education.

Not every single barrier method protects against STIs, so it's important to learn about your method of choice to make sure you know what kind of protection you're getting. Many people use more than one form at a time, depending on their needs (kind of like using hormonal birth control pills in tandem with condoms). For others, if partners have already been tested or STIs aren't a concern for another reason, they may just need an external barrier for contraception (if they don't have an IUD, ring, implant, patch, or aren't on the pill). Then, there are people who are just looking for STI protection for oral sex. Oh, and don't forget those with latex allergies.

Moral of the story: People have unique needs when it comes to sexual protection and standard male condoms are not the be-all and end-all for everyone out there.

So, we’ve rounded up five alternative sexual barrier options that people may not hear about very often. Keep in mind, these offer varying levels of STI protection, but depending on your situation, they may work better than what you're currently using. Ultimately, knowing more about what's out there gives you more power to choose the best method (or combination of methods) for you.

The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.

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Dental Dams

Dental dams are thin sheets of latex that are used during oral sex to cover the vulva, labia, or butt.

"For female oral-to-genital activity, the dental dam is the only method to decrease orally sexually transmitted infections, such as HSV1," said Dr. Nicole Williams of The Gynecology Institute of Chicago.

Personally, I’m a Sheer GLYDE Dams devotee. They’re the first vegan-friendly and only FDA-approved barrier product for protection against STIs during oral sex. Bonus: The strawberry and vanilla flavors are see-through enough to see what’s below.

"Some think that the use of latex can interfere with pleasure, but that is simply not the case," said Williams. "Applying a lubricant to the side facing the genitals can markedly increase the pleasurable effect of oral sex with the dam."

In a pinch? Dr. Ned Hook III, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Alabama, suggested using good ol' Saran Wrap or cutting open a nitrile glove.
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Diaphragms are flexible silicone cups that you insert into the vagina before sex. When covered with spermicide and placed properly within the vagina, the diaphragm protects against unwanted pregnancy. The soft, latex-free dome covers the cervix, creating a roadblock for sperm, and the spermicide kills the squiggly cells. The downside? This method of protection does not protect against STIs. ACOG recommends using diaphragms with a male or female condom if you’re concerned about getting STIs.
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Natural Membrane Condoms

Often called "natural" condoms — or, incorrectly, "lambskin" condoms — these condoms are usually made from lamb cecum, cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re effective at preventing pregnancy, but due to the size of the material’s naturally occurring pores, lab studies demonstrate they’re not a safe bet for protecting against viral STIs. The CDC doesn’t recommend using natural membrane condoms for prevention of STIs.
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Cervical Caps

Cervical caps are soft, silicone rubber caps worn by women during penetrative sex. Currently, FemCap is the only type available in the United States. Similar to a diaphragm, the latex-free contraceptive is placed inside the vagina to cover the cervix. When used with a spermicide, it blocks and kills sperm, but unfortunately doesn’t protect against STIs. Planned Parenthood recommends using cervical caps with condoms if STIs are a concern for you.
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Female Condoms

Female condoms are inserted into the vagina prior to penetrative sex. The latest versions are made of nitrile and look like an upside-down plastic baggie. They’re sometimes used as a barrier when male condoms can’t be used properly. They’re considered an effective barrier method to prevent pregnancy and most STIs (similar to male condoms). Keep in mind that they’re more expensive than male condoms, according to the CDC.