A dental dam is a piece of latex or plastic that’s placed over the vulva, vagina, or anus when performing oral sex on these body parts, to prevent the transmission of STDs.
This article is part of our Contraception Series!
What we're covering
Note: the information below was sourced from references (1-5), unless stated otherwise.
What is it?
A dental dam is a piece of latex or plastic that’s placed over the vulva, vagina, or anus when performing oral sex on these body parts, to prevent the transmission of STDs. Dental dams do not prevent pregnancy, and should not be used when performing oral sex on a penis (use an outside condom instead) or during penetrative vaginal sex (use an inside or outside condom instead). Dental dams are less easy to get than condoms, but you can usually get them at sex stores, online, or at your sexual health clinic. They’re also typically more expensive than condoms. If you can’t get them or they’re too expensive for you, you can also cut the tip and the end off a male or outside condom, and then cut the condom lengthwise to create a sheet. This also works as a dental dam. Just be very careful not to poke or cut any holes in the sheet. (6-8)
How does it work?
The material that a dental dam is made of, acts as a physical barrier that prevents contact with body fluids from the vulva, vagina, or anus. This way, germs in those fluids are not transmitted to the person performing oral sex. Make sure to check the expiration date listed on the packaging before use! Disposable birth control can degrade over time, increasing the risk of pregnancy.
How do I use a dental dam?
To use, simply take the dam out of its packaging and place it over the body part you’re going to perform oral sex on, and keep it there the entire time. Use your hands to keep it in place, but don’t stretch the dam. Applying a bit of lubrication to the skin before putting the dam in place can help keep it where it’s supposed to be. (6-8)
You should use a dental dam only once and throw it away after use (don’t flush it down the toilet). Use a new dental dam if you switch to a different body part. You should also use only one side of the dental dam: don’t turn it over during oral sex, because then you’re in contact with the body fluids you’re trying to avoid. Also check that there aren’t any holes in the dam before and during use – if the dam tears, throw it out and use a new one. (6-8)
Lastly, sensation can be decreased when using a dental dam, but adding lubrication before applying the dental dam can help. Just be sure to use a water-based lubrication, because oil breaks down the dam’s material. (6-8)
How effective is it?
There is very little data on how well dental dams protect against STDs. However, based on how dental dams work, it can be assumed they provide good protection if used correctly: they’re made out of the same material as condoms, and condoms are known to protect against STDs. (8)
What are possible side-effects?
There are no side-effects to using a dental dam. If you or your sex partner have a latex allergy, use latex-free dental dams to prevent an allergic reaction.
When can't I use it?
If you don’t know how to use it. Carefully read the instructions that come in the box or packaging before you use a dental dam. You also typically can’t use a dental dam in combination with oil-based lubrication, because this breaks down the dam’s material. Use a water-based lubrication instead.
Does it work immediately?
Yes, a dental dam is effective as soon as you apply it.
What happens to my fertility if I stop using it?
Since this is not a method to protect against pregnancy, your fertility is not affected.
You do have a higher risk of STD infection if you’re having unprotected oral sex compared to when you’re using a dental dam.
Does it protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?
Yes, dental dams protect against STDs. You can get some STDs through oral sex, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. Dental dams protect you against these. Dental dams do not reliably protect against pubic lice (“crabs”), HPV, herpes, because some skin may not be covered by the dental dam. (6, 7)
*People, here, means anyone who is able to become pregnant, including girls, women, and non-binary people and transgender men who still have their uterus, vagina, and ovaries.
Are you curious about other methods to protect yourself from an unwanted pregnancy? Read about other birth control options here!
This article is pending medical review.
Written by Juliëtte Gossens
Reviewed by Sophie Oppelt and Selina Voßen
Edited by Juliëtte Gossens
McFarlane I (ed.). Seeing the unseen: The case for action in the neglected crisis of unintended pregnancy. United Nations Population Fund. 2022. Available from: https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/EN_SWP22%20report_0.pdf
Hacker NF, Gambone JC, Hobel CJ (eds.). Hacker & Moore’s Essentials of Obstetrics & Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 2016.
Hoffman BL, Schorge JO, Halvorson LM, Hamid CA, Corton MM, Schaffer JI (eds.). William’s Gynecology. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education; 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The United States Medical Eligibility Criteria for Contraceptive Use, 2016 (US MEC). Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/mmwr/mec/summary.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2016 U.S. Selected Practice Recommendations for Contraceptive Use (U.S. SPR). Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/mmwr/spr/summary.html
Elizabeth A. Nobody Uses Dental Dams. The Atlantic. April 21st, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/04/dental-dams-are-more-symbolic-practical/587539/?utm_source=copy-link&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share [Accessed September 14th, 2022]
Richters J, Prestage G, Schneider K, Clayton S. Do women use dental dams? Safer sex practices of lesbians and other women who have sex with women. Sexual Health. 2010;7(2):165-169. DOI: 10.1071/SH09072
Gutierrez D, Tan A, Strome A, Pomeranz M. Dental dams in dermatology: An underutilized barrier method of protection. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. 2022;8(1):e008. DOI: 10.1097/JW9.0000000000000008
Please note: the information we provide to you here is for educational purposes only. If you’re experiencing any discomfort or have any complaints or questions about your health, please contact your doctor or other relevant health professional. We don’t provide medical advice.