Did you know they may be more effective at protecting against certain STIs than external condoms??

By Gabrielle Kassel
August 31, 2020
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The external condom gets so much dang love. And for good reason: They help protect against STIs and pregnancy at the exact same time. But what if there was another condom option that did all that too? Oh wait, there is: the internal condom.

Wait, WTF Is An Internal Condom??

You may recognize this barrier under its former name: the 'female condom.' But, because biological sex isn't binary and anyone can use 'em regardless of genital make-up (more on this below!), the device recently underwent a much-needed cultural re-brand and is now known as an internal condom.

Similar to external condoms, female condoms or "internal condoms function as physical barriers that protect again sexually transmitted diseases and can also prevent pregnancy," explains Sheila Loanzon, M.D. a board-certified ob-gyn and author of Yes, I Have Herpes.

But, unlike external condoms which slide over a penis or dildo, internal condoms are worn inside a vagina or anus, explains Kecia Gaither, M.D., who's double board-certified in ob-gyn and maternal-fetal medicine, and director of perinatal services at NYC Health Hospitals/Lincoln.

Right out of the package, an internal condom looks something like the lovechild of an oily sandwich baggie and deflated elephant trunk — and this is by design. It actually consists of an outer ring, a middle sheath, and a smaller inner ring, explains Dr. Loanzon. "When worn vaginally, the middle sheath lines the vaginal canal and the inner ring covers the cervix." As you might guess, when used anally, the middle part lines the anal canal.

What Are the Benefits of Internal Condoms?

Hate to sound like your high school P.E. teacher during sex-ed, but abstinence really is the only 100 percent effective way to protect against STI transmission. Luckily, with the help of internal and external condoms, you can protect yourself without swearing off sex.

In fact, because internal condoms feature an outer ring that covers part of the external vulva and bum, they may actually be better at protecting against STIs spread through skin-to-skin contact than external condoms! Considering rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — all of which can be spread through skin-to-skin contact (versus through fluids) — are at an all-time high, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this is incredibly important.

It's worth mentioning, in addition to helping protect against STIs spread through skin-to-skin contact, "the external ring of the female condom may rub against the vulva and clitoris activating further sexual stimulation," says Dr. Loanzon. How's that for a win-win?

Further, internal condoms are 95-percent effective (when used correctly) at protecting against unwanted pregnancy. Meaning, they're more effective than other birth control methods like the cervical cap (only 77 to 83 percent effective), sponges (76 percent), or the ring (91 percent).

The IUD, pill, patch, and implant can all be up to 99-percent effective when used correctly — but in some cases, user error (blanking on taking/replacing them) can thwart their effectiveness, says Dr. Gaither. And in that case, you may consider using an internal condom as a back-up. "Plus, then you'll have protection against STIs too, and not just pregnancy." True! (Related: How to Find the Best Birth Control For You).

Another perk: Unlike external condoms which, when used on a penis, require that the penis be and stay (!) fully erect, internal condoms have no such prerequisite. "You can insert the condom up to 8 hours before use," says Dr. Gaither. (FTR: Yes, you can still urinate after you put the condom inside you). If you or your boo have trouble getting or maintaining an erection, internal condoms are a great way to nix the start-and-stop of putting on a new condom every time the erection comes and goes. (Related: 8 Scary Condom Mistakes You Could Be Making)

Finally, internal condoms are a great alternative to latex condoms because they're made out of a plastic-y material called nitrile, says Dr. Gaither. And, "unlike latex barriers, internal condoms can be used with any kind of lube," she adds. (As a person who loves using oil-based CBD lube during sex, this perk is reason enough to use them.)

Are There Any Cons to Using Internal Condoms?

Listen, internal condoms are *not* hard to use. But, people have had less exposure to them than external condoms. (After all, literally no one has ever had to line a gutted grapefruit half with an internal condom in sex ed the way they may have had to sheath a banana with an external condom. Read: Sex Education Is Broken—Sustain Wants to Fix It)

Unfortunately, because many folks don't take the time to learn how to use the internal condom, there's a pretty big discrepancy between their perfect-use effectiveness (95 percent) and typical-use effectiveness (only 79 percent). So, if you're going to use an internal condom, you're going to need to spend some time learning how to put it in (we'll help below).

Another disadvantage is the squeaky sound they can make — they are made of plastic after all, so they can be pretty noisy, explains Dr. Gaither. (Pro tip: Lube helps some!)

At $2 to $3 dollars a pop, the FC2 — the only brand of internal condom that's FDA approved and available in the U.S — is also slightly more expensive than a single external condom. Plus, accessibility is an issue, as, unlike external condoms, "internal condoms are generally not readily available at most grocery stores," according to Dr. Gaither.

So, Where Can I Buy Internal Condoms?

Good news: "You don't need a prescription to buy internal condoms," says Dr. Loanzon. Meaning, you don't need to go to the doc to get them.

You can buy them at the FC2 website, sometimes on Amazon, and many — but not all — local drugstores. (FC2 also has a "Find Near You" feature, so you can check before you go searching.) You can also get them totally free at most Planned Parenthood health centers, STI testing centers, and local family planning clinics.

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How to Use An Internal Condom Vaginally

You don't need to ferociously hit up Google with queries like "how to use female condom" or "internal condom how to." We're here with both step-by-step and video instructions on how to use them correctly.

  1. Check expiration date (yep, just as with external condoms, they can expire!).
  2. Wash your hands, and remove the condom from the wrapper. Un-fold the condom and figure out which side features the closed-end (and smaller of the two rings).
  3. The condom is already lubricated, but you may choose to coat the closed end with a little more for ease of entry.
  4. Get into a comfortable position. (Whatever stance you typically take when inserting a tampon or menstrual cup will work well here).
  5. Squeeze the inner ring with your thumb and forefinger so that it creates an oval.
  6. Then, slide the small ring as far back as you can go, inserting a finger into the condom to aid in insertion if needed.
  7. Remove your finger. Is the outer ring hanging outside your vagina? You did it correctly.
  8. When inserting the penis or dildo, use your fingers to hold the outer ring in place. Then, have at it!
  9. After, twist the outer ring to capture any fluid before pulling the condom out.
  10. Dispose of it. Internal condoms are not reusable.

One last thing: "Internal condoms should not be used with external condoms," says Dr. Gaither. Double-bagging increases friction between the two can cause them to break and decrease effectiveness, she says. Noted.

How to Use An Internal Condom Anally

Inserting an internal condom anally is similar to inserting an internal condom vaginally, but there are a few additional points to consider.

First, while you can pee with an internal condom inside your vagina you can not poop with an internal condom in your bum. So depending on your digestion motility, you may not be able to insert it very far ahead of time.

Second, for anal sex, you can either leave in the internal (smaller) ring or not. If you leave the ring in, you'll insert the condom into the anus exactly as you would into a vagina. However, you may need to spend a little some time coaxing the anal sphincter muscles to relax prior to insertion. Anal massage, anal fingering, rimming, and teasing the anal sphincter with an anal-safe vibration all work well here. (Related: How to Explore Anal Masturbation)

If you decide to remove the inner ring, which, for anal newbies, is the easier move, rather than inserting the condom prior to penetration, you'll insert a penis or dildo into the condom, coat the condom in lube, and then guide the condom into the anal canal using a penis or dildo. Once you insert the penis and dildo, un-twist the external ring if it got twisted, and use your fingers to splay the outer ring so it rests against the bum cheeks. Violà! (More of a visual learner? Watch this YouTube video).

What Do Internal Condoms Feel Like?

It depends on who you ask. Angelica, 27, a cisgender woman who uses them during P-in-V with her boyfriend because she has a latex allergy says, "I like female condoms far better than other non-latex options because the material warms up to body temperature so quickly it genuinely doesn't feel like anything is there." ICYWW: She says her boyfriend also says they create a ~barely-there~ sensation.

Ana, 30, a transwoman who enjoys anal penetration says, "It's just easier to use internal condoms with more endowed partners and bigger toys because they fit better. I also like that I can use coconut oil as lube with them." (Related: Can You Use Coconut Oil As Lube?)

Meanwhile Beth, 27, a cisgender woman says, "Honestly, the first five times my partner and I used one it felt like having a plastic shopping bag inside me. But the sixth time we used a boatload of lube and it was pretty great."

One Reddit user agrees that it takes some trial and error. "There's somewhat of a learning curve associated with them but overall I'd recommend them without hesitation," they say. "We got [them] for buttstuff and occasionally have used them for PIV...They're leagues better than male condoms for him. I like them more, too." There you have it.

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