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How effective are condoms in preventing spread of STI's and unwanted pregnancy?

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How effective are condoms in preventing spread of STI's and unwanted pregnancy?

There are conflicting accounts of different viewpoints regarding condom usage and condom effectiveness. Almost all sources agree that a condom is an effective contraception method capable of preventing the spread of STI's and a useful contraceptive tool used in family planning. The effectiveness of condom is ought to be discussed in detail.

No type of contraceptive prevents from getting pregnant 100% of the time. Similarly, no type of contraceptive prevents the transmission of STD's 100% of the time. But nothing protects against STD's and unwanted pregnancy better than a properly manufactured, stored and used condom, of a correctly fitting size***.

***Please note that rare lambskin condoms do not protect from STD's.

What is meant by properly manufactured condoms. Properly stored condoms and properly used condoms.

  • Properly manufactured means tested and certificated.
  • Properly stored means placed in a cool dry place, away from direct sun rays and away from sources of extreme heat, away from sources of extreme tear - such as inside wallets and alongside loose change/heavy keys in pockets. It is best to carry the condom in a reserved pocket for just the condom package and/or papers or things that cannot damage the package.
  • Properly used means used before the expiration date, the package contents having been extracted gently in order not to damage the condom, rolled on the penis correctly, tipped with spare air at the top, used only once and checked for holes and damage before usage. It also means used without anything that may damage the walls of the condoms, such as unsafe lubricants, oils, lotions, jelly. Use only water-based lubricants with condoms.

Correctly fitting condom comfortably accommodates the length and the girth of the penis without slipping off.  There are significant variations of penis sizes and shapes and there are many condom sizes and shapes to match. If a condom is too wide it may slip off, if a condom is too narrow/too tight it might stretch, tear and break.

Use a correct size condom!

How effective are condoms as a method of contraception - how helpful are they in avoiding unawanted pregnancies?

When properly manufactured, stored, used and of a correct size - a condom is very effective in preventing pregnancy. The condom does not let sperm through.

Condoms were found to be 98% safe in terms or preventing pregnancy among women whom use condoms regularly as a contraceptive, over a period of one year.

98% safe

This means that if 100 women use condoms regularly over the course of a year, only 2% become pregnant.

However, the 2 percent condom failure rate, is not necessarily attributed to the condom quality issues or ineffectiveness in stopping the sperm from reaching the eggs. Instead the failure rate could be a result of human error such as misuse of condoms.

How effective are latex condoms as barriers against transmission of HIV and AIDS?

There are some articles, including ones from religious institutions which criticize the condoms as a way of preventing the spread of AIDS. Whilst condoms do not offer a 100% security against unwanted pregnancy or spread of deceases, the most sources used by the anti-condoms campaigners rely of arguments of morals rather then rational thinking. Nearly every empirical or scientific study has shown that using condoms helps to slow and sometimes eliminate the transfer of HIV-AIDS.

The rational argument for effectiveness of using condoms, is that the failure rate of condoms is due to improper and inconsistent use, although accidents are by no means ruled out.

Any inadequate information, based on false promise of security is unwarranted and therefore irresponsible, so it is true that condoms alone will not eradicate the threat of AIDS plague. People are advised to be sensible and not to engage in promiscuous sexual acts.

Whilst unprotected sexual intercourse remains one of the causes of the spread of HIV virus, another major cause of spread of deceases is sharing needles and syringes amongst heroin users. So beware, of whom you have sex with in addition to how you have sex.

Condoms go through rigorous testing before being sold.

Most manufacturers test random samples from massive batches of condoms to eliminate the faulty ones. The more expensive, reputable brands test every single condom.

Leak testing or water testing is a simple way to check the consistency of the condom. Most of the tests today especially the condoms that meet the European and north American standards, are done automatically in special laboratories.

The tests are designed to test the various characteristics of the condom:

  • Tensile strength or elasticity - by stretching  through blowing air into the condom, up to 30 liters.
  • Density and consistence of the material through electric charge detection through soluble conducive fluid, if there is a single fault no matter how minuscule, the alarm will sound and the batch, sometimes up to hundreds of thousands of condoms will be sent to be recycled.

It is a matter of good business for the condoms to be of high quality, to be certified to be sold in North America and Europe. The standards for other countries are slowly matching up. However issues have been raised with condom quality in other countries. So for Europeans and North Americans, it is best to take condoms with you when travelling overseas.. It is best to buy condoms from reputable stores and from legitimate pharmacies.

The science of how effective the condoms are at protecting against STI's.

There is some basis for the view that condoms might be ineffective.

"the rubber comprising latex condoms has intrinsic voids [pores] about 5 microns (0.00002 inches) in size. Since this is roughly 10 times smaller than sperm, the latter are effectively blocked.... Contrarily, the AIDS virus is only 0.1 micron (4 millionths of an inch) in size. Since this is a factor of 50 smaller than the voids inherent in rubber, the virus can readily pass through." - Editor of Rubber Chemistry and Technology, Dr. C. Michael Roland of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C

However, since actual HIV virus is contained within the viscous liquid along with sperm, in reality that liquid needs to pass through in order for the virus to be transferred. 

Currently there is significant research that supports condoms as an effective barrier against STI's.

The FDA in 1992 administered a test attempting to see how well the condoms perform in stressful conditions and to find out how effective they are as a barrier to stop HIV-sized glass beads from passing through.

The stressful conditions were as follows:

  • The concentration of HIV-sized glass beads was higher than the concentration of HIV virus in semen.
  • The fluid was not as sticky as semen.
  • Force that simulated 10 minutes of penetrative thrusting 10 minutes after ejaculation.

Food and Drug Administration found that most condoms leaked nothing. The worst performing condom was still effective in preventing exposure to the virus by 10000, meaning that only 1 HIV virus might pass through only 1 of  90 condoms. In normal conditions however, HIV does not pass through a latex condom that is not ripped, torn, broken or faulty to start with.

However, another study that simulated conditions of an intercourse in 1994 by Carey at al, found that in those simulated conditions (including temperature, pressure, anatomical geometry, etc) some leaks of HIV-sized particles were detected, in a significant number of condoms, however the use of condoms itself significantly reduced the risk of transmitting STI's.

World Health Organisation, the international body that oversees health, describe any risk from intact condoms as negligible and are supported by most knowledgeable scientists on the subject.

How often do condoms break?

In the United States he condom breakage rate is around 1-2%, however most of this is a result of improper use and improper fitting, rather than quality. The risk of a condom breaking is minimized through correct use, correct fitting and correct storage.

When do not correctly used condoms protect against unwanted pregnancy and transmission of STD's?

  • When condoms loses its stretching and density characteristics, i.e. broken.
  • When the infected areas are not covered by the condoms, such as base of penis or scrotum.

What to do if a condom breaks or slips off during sex and you are concerned about pregnancy?

It is best to get in contact with a pharmacy or a medical officer. It is advisable for both partners to be tested for sexually transmitted deceases as well. In fact, it is best to get yourself checked regularly, or after every new partner.

Overview of condom usage as an effective method of preventing the spread of AIDS virus and as method of contraception

The problem with condoms is that the basic technique to use the condom is forgotten in the heat of the moment, it may never have been learnt or it may not occur to revisit the proper way to put the condoms on.

In Nevada, US, prostitution is legal and it is also law for all sex workers to be tested for STI's and condom use is mandatory for sex workers, it is mostly the sex workers who put the condoms on their clients.

When condoms are properly used, the risk of infection is minimal, in fact over 66,000 tests were conducted in the brothels and never a case of HIV was found.

It is important to use the condom correctly and it is important that the condom is of a right size. It has been found that new users of condoms are 10 times more likely to experience condom breakage and slippage in comparison to those whom are familiar with the proper use.

Condoms are an effective barrier against unwanted pregnancy and an effective barrier to cut the risk of transmission of HIV, but they are not perfect or foolproof.

So, even with a condom, be careful. It is your responsibility to take care of your own health and well being as well as that of others around you.


Carey, Lytle, & Cyr (1999). Implications of laboratory tests of condom integrity. Sex Transm Dis, 26(4): 216-20.

Lytle, Routson, Seaborn, Dixon, Bushar, & Cyr (1997). An in vitro evaluation of condoms as barriers to a small virus. Sex Transm Dis, 24(3):161-164

CDC (2006). Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines, 2006. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 55(RR-11).

Steiner, Cates, & Warner (1999). The real problem with male condoms is non-use. Sex Transm Dis, 26(8): 459-62.

Warner, Stone, Macaluso, Buehler, & Austin (2006). Condom use and risk of gonorrhea and Chlamydia: A systematic review of design and measurement factors assessed in epidemiologic studies. Sex Transm Dis, 33(1): 36-51.

Weller & Davis (2001). Condom effectiveness in reducing heterosexual HIV transmission. Cochrane Database Syst Rev; 3:CD003255.

Carey, Ronald F., et al. (1992). “Effectiveness of Latex Condoms as a Barrier to Human Immunodeficiency Virus-Sized Particles under Conditions of Simulated Use.” Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 19(4), 230–234.

Hatcher, Robert A., et al. (2007). Contraceptive Technology, 19th revised edition, pp. 302. New York: Ardent Media.

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