Are two condoms better than one?

Originally Published: April 4, 1997 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 11, 2013
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Dear Alice,

My boyfriend recently suggested that we use two condoms at once while having sex because it would decrease my chances of becoming pregnant. How reliable is this and why haven't I heard about this before? We've been using a single condom. Also, which is the best spermicide that can also act as a lubricant?

Sincerely,
Cautious

Dear Cautious,

Double your pleasure, double your fun? Well, not in this case. Using two male condoms at the same time isn’t recommended for pregnancy prevention or as a safer sex method. In fact, "double-bagging" as it is sometimes called, can increase the friction between the condoms during intercourse, making them more likely to rip or tear. This could be why you haven’t heard of using two condoms at once before — because it is, in fact, counterproductive. The same goes for using a male condom and female condom at the same time.

It may be reassuring to know that, even on their own, single condoms are highly reliable in preventing not only pregnancies but STIs as well. Research has shown that only two out of every 100 couples who use condoms correctly for one year will have an unintended pregnancy, giving condoms a 98 percent effectiveness rate when used consistently and correctly. It’s important to note that, when condoms do fail, it is most often a result of human error, mistakes that people make, rather than defects in the condoms themselves. When used incorrectly (e.g., using more than one condom at a time, not putting the condom on properly, reusing a condom, etc.) the effectiveness of condoms drops substantially. You might want to check out Common reasons for condom failure and Condom breakage and slippage? in the Go Ask Alice! Sexual and Reproductive Health archive for more information on how to properly use condoms. Planned Parenthood also has a great video on how to put on a condom which you and your boyfriend may find helpful. Check it out!

Other effective ways to decrease the likelihood of a pregnancy include using a "back-up method" of contraception in addition to condoms, such as a spermicide like you mention in your question. Other options include using condoms with a diaphragm, birth control pill, or another hormonal method, such as the contraceptive ring or patch. There are a lot of options and each person is unique in what works for them. Check out Bedsider, a birth control support network filled with helpful information, videos from real women, and this handy side-by-side comparison of birth control methods.

In terms of which spermicidal lubricant is the “best” — that’s something you (and your partner) can only figure out by trial and error. Some people find spermicides irritating to their skin. Nonoxynol-9 is the most commonly used spermicide in the U.S. and, if used too frequently or if the user experiences irritation, tissues can become inflamed which can increase the risk of HIV or other STI transmission.

It’s important to remember that spermicides only help to protect against pregnancy and are not effective at preventing the transmission of STIs. In terms of effectiveness at preventing pregnancy, spermicides (if used without another birth control method) are less effective than condoms. If women always use spermicides as directed, 15 out of 100 will become pregnant each year. Spermicide will be more effective in preventing pregnancy if used in combination with a female or male condom. Also, remember that when choosing a lube to use in combination with condoms (regardless of whether the lube contains spermicide or not), pick a water soluble type, not oil-based. Oil-based lubricants will deteriorate the latex in condoms.

Need safer sex supplies? Check out this sexual health map for information on where to get condoms (both male and female) and other safer sex supplies on the Morningside campus. If you are on the Medical Center campus, the Center for Student Wellness carries a variety of safer sex supplies including male and female condoms, and both water- and silicone-based lubricant.

Have fun and stay safe!

Alice