That depends on what type of birth control you’re using!
Like many things in life, being sexually active can carry risk: emotional vulnerability, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs, also known as sexually transmitted diseases, STDs). Luckily, there are plenty of resources available to help make sex safer. Added bonus of taking advantage of these tools? Less worry often translates to more pleasure for everyone involved.
With all of the safer sex tools available to us, it can be confusing to decide exactly which we should be using. Here are the three things to keep in mind:
- Healthy communication (including consent): necessary for any safe sex
- Barrier Methods (condoms or oral dams): protection from STIs
- Contraception: protection from unintended pregnancy*
For the most effective protection from both STIs and unintended pregnancy use all three tools in combination. Let’s walk though some of the most common safer sex resources and exactly what they protect us from.
Hormonal Birth Control
No hormonal birth control (HBC) method will protect you from STIs. However, HBC can all dramatically reduce the likelihood of unintended pregnancy. There are various HBC options that ranges from 91% to over 99% effective with typical use. Long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs – including IUDs and the implant) are the most effective and longest lasting option. Because of these benefits, the American College of Obstetric and Gynecologists recommends LARCs for most patients.
For people who do not want a LARC or who don’t have access to one, there are plenty of other options! In addition to hormonal shots, the patch, and the vaginal ring, there is the ever popular “pill”. About a quarter of self-identified women using contraception use the pill.
One of the main reasons that LARCs are so effective is that they release a continuous flow of hormones, removing any user error or compliance issues. But for those who prefer an oral contraceptive, they can reach similar levels of protection by making sure to take their pill every single day. Anything that makes it easier to take the pill every day, makes this method of birth control work better. Companies like Pandia bring birth control right to your door with free delivery and automatic refills. With Pandia, you never have to worry about running out of pills or scrambling to refill a prescription. The development of LARCs and new delivery methods for hormonal pills have made avoiding unwanted pregnancy easier than ever.
But what about avoiding STIs?
The first thing to know is that latex, polyisoprene, polyurethane or nitrile (not lambskin) condoms, are the only tools that work double duty as contraception (birth control) and STI prevention. By providing a barrier to both pathogens and semen, condoms can protect you from unintended pregnancy and infection.
Condoms for Pregnancy Prevention
When it comes to pregnancy prevention, external condoms, otherwise known as “male condoms,” have a 98% success rate with perfect use, but only an 85% success rate with typical use. This means that about 15 out of 100 people having penile-vaginal-penetrative sex with an external condom will still get pregnant. With internal condoms (“female condoms”), the typical use success rate is only 79%!
The drop from perfect to typical success rates is due in part to incorrect usage which leads to condom breakage, slippage, and leakage. However, the decreased percentages are more commonly caused by people failing to use condoms from the start of sexual contact to the end. Learn more about how to properly use an external condom here, or an internal condom here. That said, if you’re having penile-vaginal-penetrative sex, a 15 to 21 out of 100 chance at getting pregnant isn’t great. So, be sure to use a second form of birth control in addition to condoms for adequate protection.
Condoms for STI Prevention
Condoms work by creating a physical barrier, which means that they only prevent STI transmission across the membranes they separate. Therefore they are most effective at preventing STIs transmitted through body fluids such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, hepatitis B, and HIV.
When it comes to STIs that are spread through skin-to-skin contact such as genital herpes, HPV, and syphilis, condoms are still very effective, but cannot prevent transmission between uncovered body parts. Although not yet FDA cleared for STI protection, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises that oral dams and finger-cots can be used to prevent contact with body fluids during oral sex and mutual masturbation.
Reinforcements: Vaccines, PrEP, and Testing
Although condoms reduce STI transmission significantly, there are some important preventative health care choices we can make to further reduce our risk. The first is being vaccinated. HPV, Hepatitis A, and Hepatitis B vaccinations are safe and effective. HPV vaccination is recommended for people ages nine through 45, while hepatitis vaccination is recommended for people of all ages.
Another valuable resource for those who are at high-risk for HIV, is HIV PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis. PrEP entails taking a pill every day and can reduce your risk of getting HIV by up to 99%. Similarly PEP, post-exposure prophylaxis, can be used up to 72 hours after a potential exposure to dramatically reduce your risk of getting HIV.
One last important step in maintaining your sexual health is knowing your STI status through routine screening. This can be done at your annual wellness check up, your local health department, or even with the privacy and convenience from home with binx!
Long story short:
Condoms are the only method of birth control that also protects you from STIs. So if you’re using a different form of birth control, like an IUD or the Pill, be sure to use a condom too! And be sure to get tested regularly to know your status.
Looking to get on the pill or have your prescription delivered to your door? Go to Pandia’s website and use the coupon code “BINX” for $5 off your online doctor’s visit! Looking for convenient, discreet, at-home STI Testing? Take our simple quiz to find the right test for you.
*For people engaging in penile-vaginal-penetrative sex.