Most of us learned about the condom early on. You may have even watched a health teacher slip one onto a banana at some point. But dental dams are talked about much less often. And honestly, that's a crime. They're a great way to prevent sexually transmitted infections — specifically during oral sex on someone with a vagina, or during rimming.
Let's get this out of the way first: There’s a major misconception that oral sex is safer than other forms of intercourse. But the truth is, you can contract STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and even HIV by giving head. That’s why you may want to protect yourself — yes, even from something that seems as joyous and harmless as cunnilingus.
Science backs her up. One 2010 study out of Australia looked at 330 women, and found that less than 10% of queer women use the tools during oral sex, and only 2.1% percent incorporate them in the bedroom on a regular basis.
Some of the reluctance to use dental dams may be due to an unfamiliarity with them. So we spoke to Dr. Bartos and other experts, who helped us put together this comprehensive guide on the latex barriers. Knowledge is power, after all.
What exactly is a dental dam, and how does it work?
Dental dams are sheets of latex or polyurethane that are used as barriers between one partner's mouth and the other's vulva or anus, Myisha Battle, certified sex and dating coach, tells Refinery29. They're fairly easy to use. You simply lay the dam across the vulva or anus before performing oral sex, like a little latex throw blanket.
“You may need to hold it to make sure it stays in place during oral sex,” Battle notes. You don't need to hold it taut for it to work, but you or your partner may find it more pleasurable that way. Just don't tug it too hard; you don't want it to break. And always check the expiration date before using one.
Why should you use a dental dam?
It’s one of the safest ways to perform oral on a vagina or anus, so it can be a handy tool to keep in your wallet, purse, or bedside drawer. They’re a great method for preventing STIs such as syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis, and HIV.
That said, they don’t prevent the transmission of STIs that are passed through skin-to-skin contact like HPV and herpes. These can be sometimes passed on during oral sex, even when using a dental dam, so it's always best to have a conversation with a new partner about their sexual history and when they were last tested for STIs.
Why don’t more people use dental dams?
It's probably down to unfamiliarity, plain and simple. “No one talks about what they really are,” Dr. Bartos says. She says she has a chart of safe sex practices on a wall in her clinic, yet there's no mention of a dental dam on it. She says this is just one example of how even healthcare providers don’t think about the safety sheets much. “A lack of knowledge about them is one big reason why people don’t use them,” Bartos says.
Dental dams aren't passed out on college campuses for free like condoms are, and many sex ed classes don’t mention them in detail. “People don’t know where to get them or how to use them,” Dr. Bartos says. “Something similar happened with the female condom — it’s effective, but many people aren’t sure how to put it in, what to do with it, or where they can get it, so they just go for the condom because it seems easier.”
“Dental dams just aren't used as frequently as condoms,” Battle agrees. “I think it’s difficult for people to consider performing oral sex through a barrier.”
She adds that because condoms are a form of birth control — and not just used to protect against STIs — they're seen as more necessary, and therefore they're used more widely.
What shouldn't you do with a dental dam?
You also shouldn’t reuse them, or use oil-based lubes or spermicides with them as these can wear down the material, making the dam less effective. They also don't work as a condom substitute, so don't use them for penetrative sex.
What if a dental dam accidentally gets stuck in the vagina?
Although there’s a chance the dental dam will slide into the vagina or anus while you’re performing oral sex on your partner, you can pull it out like you might a tampon; Battle says it should be fairly easy to remove. Remove it ASAP, throw it away, and start fresh with a new dam to best protect against STIs.
Where can you get dental dams?
You can find them online, or in some drugstores in the same aisle as the condoms. Battle recommends the brand Trust Dam which comes in a variety of flavors, including banana, grape, strawberry, and mint. Another option are single-use latex panties, like these made by Lorals, she says. Some people may prefer this style of dam, since they're less likely to move around during oral sex.
That said, Battle notes, “Dental dams can be expensive and there aren't a lot of companies that make them." If you can't find any in stores, or if you've run out and you need one in a pinch, you can make your own dam from a condom, Battle says. “Just cut the tip and the base off of the condom then cut it down its side,” she says. Unfold, and voila! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has a helpful guide with illustrations that explain how to make a DIY dental dam.
That's right, all it takes is some craft scissors and an unused condom to make oral sex even more fun (and safer too).