Let's Get Some Things Straight About Dental Dams
This easy, affordable, safe-sex barrier can help prevent against STI transmission during oral sex and other activities — so why are they almost entirely forgotten?
"Dental dam" may sound like a cage for your canines or dike made out of dentures. But dental dams are actually a barrier method that can be used during oral sex to reduce the risk of STI transmission — which, FYI, is a real risk, considering STI rates continue to be higher than ever in the U.S. So why don't dental dams get the respect and attention they deserve? And, even more importantly, why is it so hard to find them?
"Dental dams are the most under-rated, under-utilized barrier method in the world," says Lisa Finn, a sex educator at sex toy mecca Babeland. Yeah, you read that right. Curious? Read on to learn more about dental dams, and why you should probably be using them.
What Is a Dental Dam?
A thin latex or polyurethane sheet about the length and width of a Thai takeout container, a dental dam is placed between a mouth and body to reduce the risk of STI transmission during cunnilingus (aka oral sex on a vulva) or analingus (aka rimming, or oral-anal sex).
Harder to find in stores than external or internal condoms, you likely haven't seen dental dams in the "family planning aisle" (🙄) at CVS. But you probably have seen them at the dentist. That's right: Dentists have been using them to isolate teeth during procedures like cavity removal since the late 1800's — and hence why they're called dental dams, according to The Verge. It wasn't until the AIDs epidemic that these sheets got their second purpose as a sex barrier.
What's the Point of Dental Dams?
Put simply, dental dams exist to reduce risk of STI transmission during certain non-penetrative sex acts. "Most people aren't taught that STIs can be transmitted during sex acts other than penis-in-vagina sex and penis-in-anus sex — but they can," says Finn.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis, HPV, and HIV can all be spread via oral sex, says Felice Gersh, M.D., author of PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist's Lifeline to Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones and Happiness. In fact, oral-genital contact is currently the leading cause of herpes transmission. "People will have cold sores on their lips, not realize that that's a herpes infection, and then transmit the virus to their partner's genitals while going down on them," she explains. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Herpes and Getting Tested)
In the case of oral-anal sex (due to the proximity of poop), parasitic and bacterial diseases as well as Hepatitis A and E are also a risk, she says.
Because dental dams act as a barrier to body fluid and skin-to-skin contact, when used correctly (more on this below) dental dams can reduce transmission risk of all those aforementioned STIs and infections. At time of publication, there's no research showing exactly how effective they are. But "when used correctly, they are incredibly effective," says Dr. Gersh.
Worth mentioning: Dental dams can also be used to reduce STI transmission risk during scissoring between two vulva-owners if you're *not* making huge body-movements, according to Finn. "If there's a lot of bumping and grinding, the dam can slip out of the way," she says. (Have questions about scissoring? Check out this guide on first-time lesbian sex.)
Beyond transmission protection, dental dams can also increase pleasure! For starters, it's dam (see what I did there?) near impossible to experience earth-shattering Os when you're stressing about STI transmission. Beyond that, because the dental dam covers more surface area than a tongue alone, a larger portion of the vulva and bum may get stimulated during play, says Finn.
They can also come in handy for people who may be apprehensive about giving or receiving oral sex. "Because they offer people an opportunity to receive oral without requiring that they be fully exposed, dental dams allow people who might be too self-conscious to receive oral, to receive oral," says sex educator and LGBTQ+ advocate Melanie Cristol, founder of Lorals Latex Panties, a dental dam alternative. (Related: If You're Uncomfortable Receiving Oral Sex, You're Not Alone—Here's How to Relax)
"Dental dams can be used in kinky play by snapping them against the skin," she says. "And you can also use them to protect your bits if your partner has a scratchy beard or if you want to have sex on your period but are looking to contain the mess."
Are There Any Downsides to Dental Dams?
"There are no downsides to dental dams. Like other barrier methods, however, they can change the sensation," says Finn. "So whether or not you use a dental dam depends on whether or not your priority is to achieve one specific sensation or protect yourself and/or your partner from transmission."
If you don't enjoy the sensation of latex or latex alternative on your bits but want to practice safer sex, there is a solution: Add more lubricant between your genitals and the dam. "A thicker water-based lubricant or slippery silicone lubricant can pad the feeling of the barrier, and increase pleasure," says Finn. Some good options include: Cake Toy Joy, Uberlube, or Sliquid Sassy.
Of course, you can always get tested ahead before letting your tongue travel South, which is what Dr. Gersh recommends. "I believe you should be getting tested before any new partner, and then once or twice a year thereafter if the relationship is monogamous and more often than that if it's not." (See more: How Often You Should Really Get Tested for STDs)
How to Use a Dental Dam
First, check the expiration date — yes, like condoms, these can expire. Next, wash your hands (correctly, please!). Remove the sheet from the packaging, unfold it, and eyeball for any tears or defects.
Now onto the fun part! Squirt a lil lube on the receivers bits or bum, then lay the dam over the hot spot. Now, hold it in place and get licking. "Whether you use one hand or two hands to hold it in place will depend on the receivers response to the sex act," says Dr. Gersh. "After all, some people may move more when they are experiencing pleasure." LOL, fair!
If at any point the dam slips way out of place, folds over itself, or rips, replace it with a new one. And when you're done, toss it! "Dental dams may look like they can be washed off in the sink and reused, but they CANNOT," says Finn. (Caps hers).
Where to Get Dental Dams
Again, most pharmacies don't carry dental dams — which is pretty annoying, considering you can get external condoms (aka the kind that go on penises) everywhere. You should be able to find dental dams at your local Planned Parenthood or health center. You can also buy dental dams online on Amazon, directly from dental dam brands like Glyde, and in most sex shops (such as The Pleasure Chest), too.
If you're in a pinch, you can DIY a dental dam. All you need is an external condom and sharp scissors. "With clean hands, take the condom out of the package. Snip off each end so that you have an open tube. Then slice the tunnel in half and you should have a nice broad rectangle of a dental dam alternative," says Finn. Just make sure the condom you're using doesn't have any spermicide on it, which can cause irritation, she says.
Hopefully, in the near future, you'll also be able to use the aforementioned Lorals Latex Panties. The love-child of a dental dam and lingerie, "Lorals are single-use latex panties designed to be worn during oral sex and rimming," says Cristol. Because they're soon to be under review by the FDA, Cristol can't make claims about the product's effectiveness at reducing STI transmission. But the brand is hopeful that by the end of 2021, they'll have the green-light from the FDA to market these panties as a true alternative to dental dams.
What Do Dental Dams Feel Like?
"How a dental dam feels for the receiver is going to change based on whether it's latex or non-latex, and how much lubricant you use," says Finn. But generally she says, "it feels like a slippery, sensation-boosting sheet."
Amanda S., 27, from Brooklyn, NY, uses dental dams with her partner whenever she suspects she's about to have a herpes outbreak. "The sensation is definitely unique… I can feel it sliding around my labia while my partner licks, which adds sensation to a part of my vulva that wouldn't otherwise be sensated during play," she says. Kinda cool!
On the giving end, her partner says, "It feels more intimate than you'd expect. I may not be able feel her actual vulva against my tongue, but I can feel her heat through the barrier."