Better information about dental dams

Dear Alice,

I've seen the recommendations. I've seen the suggestions for do-it-yourself workaround (cutting open a condom, plastic wrap... ). What I *haven't* seen is practical usage advice — how to place the thing effectively, how to overcome the limitations of losing direct contact, how to arrange things to permit vaginal penetration with fingers while still maintaining protection and so on. Best-practice condom use isn't perfectly obvious either, but at the most basic level it's pretty straightforward. If you want to build acceptance for barrier use during cunnilingus, it needs to be at least as clear and/or at least as well-documented.

Dear Reader,

You make a good point about the lack of information and discussion around the use of dental dams (or just dams), which are excellent barriers for safer oral sex. For readers who may not be as familiar with the topic, here’s a brief rundown: dental dams were originally created to help dentists focus on a particular part of the mouth (i.e., a single tooth, with the remainder of the mouth covered by the dental dam) during dental procedures, but they're now also used for cunnilingus (oral-vaginal contact) and anilingus (oral-to-anal contact) to create an effective barrier that helps to prevent bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens from spreading during oral sex. Whether you use a store-bought dam or show off your do-it-yourself (DIY) skills and make your own at home, these barriers can be used in creative and practical ways to make sex safer.  

First item to tackle: proper placement of the dam. There are a few tips and considerations to using this barrier method so that it won't stand in the way of pleasure. One method is to apply a water-based lubricant to the vulva or anus — this can help keep the barrier secured, with an added bonus of reducing friction and increasing sensation to enhance pleasure. Then, in terms of placement, it's a good idea to make sure the dam is covering the vulva or anus, allowing for oral stimulation of these areas without coming into contact with bodily fluids or skin. Since a dam serves as a barrier between partners, it only needs to be held in place, not stretched or held tightly over the skin. It may also add to the fun to have a receiving partner hold the dam in place — this can allow the partner performing cunnilingus or anilingus to have their hands free to stimulate other areas. This dynamic also creates an experience where both partners are actively involved. In order to prevent slippage while holding the dam, it’s a good idea for the person holding the barrier to keep their hands and fingers lubricant-free.

Now, when it comes to using a dam, the best way to get familiar and comfortable with it is by practicing and planning ahead. Just like when using condoms, as familiarity with dams grows, confidence about introducing and using them during sex play may follow. Having a supply of dams (and condoms) available can also help ease the transition to safer sexual activity when you’re in the mood. There are lots of creative ways to incorporate them into sex play while maintaining an intimate atmosphere. For example, asking your partner to touch themselves while you slowly unwrap and apply the barrier. Another way to keep it sexy is by experimenting with different dam colors, sizes, and flavors.

Reader, you mentioned that you already know about some of the DIY methods to make your own dams. But there is one method you might not have heard of that can address your question of how to maintain protection during vaginal penetration. You can try making your own dam using a latex glove! Cutting off the pinkie, the three middle fingers, and then up the side of the pinkie/little finger of the glove, while leaving the thumb intact allows the now transformed piece of latex to act as a barrier method for digital penetration, too (i.e., using fingers). Just keep in mind that if you’re going to make your own dam, using powder-free gloves are recommended — your taste buds will thank you!

But wait, there’s more! Here are some additional considerations for using dams:

  • Always check your chosen barrier for holes or tears before using it. You can do this by holding it up to a light. It's wise to avoid working around any holes or tears — it’s much safer to use a brand new barrier instead.
  • Only use one side of the dam. Flipping a dam around to use the other side defeats the purpose of the barrier, potentially exposing the dam user to bacteria and viruses.
  • Use a new dam when moving the action from one body part to another. For example, moving the dam from the anus to the vulva can cause a urinary tract infection because fecal matter may be transferred to the urethra, and moving the dam from the vulva to the anus could transmit genital herpes from the labia to the anus.
  • Dams are only for one-time use. Saving a dam to reuse at a later date or time, even if you plan to use it on the same body part, isn't advised.
  • Dams aren’t intended for insertion. If you’re looking for a barrier method for vaginal or anal penetration with fingers, you can try using a latex glove with some water-based lubricant or an internal (female) condom instead.
  • Keep water-based lube on hand when using a latex dam. Oils or oil-based lubricants can break down the latex and reduce barrier effectiveness.

Dams are a great addition to a fun, communicative, and comfortable sexual experience, all while increasing protection. Thanks for your support in breaking down the knowledge barriers on these safer sex tools!

Last updated Jan 03, 2020
Originally published Aug 16, 2013