Here’s how to perform this safe-sex magic.
Next time you’re strolling through the drugstore, take a gander at the offerings on display in the sex aisle. OK, it’s not called the sex aisle, but you know exactly what we mean: the aisle with rows of condoms, lube, and sometimes even tiny, discreet sex toys. See any dental dams there?
If you don’t, that’s not a huge surprise. Dental dams can be hard to find, Peter Leone, M.D., adjunct associate professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and adjunct professor of medicine at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina, tells SELF.
As a refresher, dental dams are thin sheets of latex or polyurethane (plastic) that go over the vulva and vagina or anal area to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted infections during oral sex. Sounds great in theory. But if you need a dental dam in practice and don’t have one, what are you supposed to do? As it turns out, you can improvise.
OK, first let’s discuss what’s often a record-scratch moment for a lot of people: You can indeed get or pass along sexually transmitted infections during oral sex.
Jacques Moritz, M.D., an ob/gyn at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, says that many of the patients he’s seen don’t really consider oral sex as a way to spread STIs. “They’re wrong,” he tells SELF.
Though the chances of this vary based on factors like whether you’re the giver or receiver and which specific STI you’re talking about, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists these as the STIs you can possibly spread or contract via oral:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV, and major caveat here: Oral is by far the least common way to contract HIV through sex whether you’re performing or receiving. The CDC says the likelihood of it happening is “extremely low.” Instead, receptive anal sex carries the highest risk.)
Depending on the STI you’re talking about and the sex act involved, you can get an infection from oral in different ways. It’s possible for a partner with HSV-1, which typically causes oral herpes, to spread the virus from their mouth to your genitals, for example. Or you can get, say, gonorrhea in your throat after performing oral sex on a partner who has the condition. And doctors are increasingly worried about people getting HPV in their throats, Dr. Moritz says, because of its link to cancer. HPV causes around 70 percent of oropharyngeal (back of the throat) cancers in the United States, according to the CDC.
So, yeah, you want to protect yourself from STIs during oral sex. (Unless, of course, you’re in a mutually monogamous relationship and have both been tested recently.) The best way to do that varies based on your sexual organs and your partner’s, along with what exactly you’re doing. But if a vagina, vulva, or anus is involved, you’ll want to use a dental dam. And if you don’t have one? A few other options work as a great stand-in.
You can turn a condom into a dental dam in a few simple steps. You can also use a latex or plastic glove, or even non-microwaveable plastic wrap.
“As far as trying to prevent sexually transmitted infections, what you want in a condom is exactly what you want in a dental dam,” Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School, tells SELF. Basically, you’re looking for a material that can act as a barrier between two people’s sexual parts, making it way harder for the microorganisms that cause STIs to pass from one person to the other. A condom can workas this barrier over a vulva and vagina or anus, it’s just in the wrong shape.
Once you actually have the condom, all you need to do to transform it into a dental dam is cut off the tip and bottom of the condom, cut down one side, and unfurl it, the CDC says. Ta-da!
“A condom as a dental dam would still be impermeable, so pathogens [microorganisms that can cause infections] shouldn’t get through,” Dr. Leone says, adding that you need to be as careful as possible when you’re cutting the condom so you don’t accidentally poke a hole anywhere you shouldn’t.
You can use a latex condom unless one of you is allergic, in which case you should opt for a polyurethane one instead, Dr. Leone says. Either way, a flavored condom might help with the taste of the material.
If you don’t have a condom on hand, you can use a latex or plastic glove. Jill McDevitt, Ph.D., resident sexologist at intimate product company CalExotics, explains how: First, cut the three middle fingers off the glove, leaving the pinky and thumb. Then cut from the wrist of the glove up to the knuckles, right down the middle of the palm. Unfold it, and now you’ve got a square sheet in the middle for protection, plus those pinky and thumb protrusions as “handles” that you can hold down to better keep the dental dam in place, if you like.
You could also cut off all of the glove’s fingers except the thumb, then cut up the length of the glove where the pinky used to be, McDevitt says. “This creates a rectangular sheet with the thumb sticking out in the middle, right where your tongue will be. You can stick your tongue in the thumb hole,” she explains. (A finger works, too.)
Just like with condoms and dental dams, using latex doesn’t make sense if you or your sexual partner has a latex allergy—in that case, opt for plastic gloves. Also, latex gloves sometimes comes with a powder (this makes them easier to put on) that might irritate your nose or mouth if you inhale or ingest it, Dr. Leone adds, so it’s best to use powder-free gloves if possible.
Finally, if there are no dental dams, condoms, or even gloves in sight, you can slice off a length of plastic wrap and use that as a barrier, Dr. Leone says. There’s one hitch: It needs to be non-microwaveable. “Plastic wrap is not all the same. Microwaveable plastic wrap has to have small pores in it so that when water evaporates, it doesn’t cause the wrap to explode,” Dr. Leone says. Those little holes could theoretically allow pathogens to pass through, so you want non-microwaveable plastic wrap for protection during oral sex. (Keep in mind that not even non-microwaveable plastic wrap should be used as protection for vaginal or anal sex—stick with legitimate condoms for those sex acts, please.)
The plastic wrap can be especially great because of convenience. “If used properly, [these methods] will probably all work in an equivalent manner, but plastic wrap is easy to get, you can adjust for size, and you don’t have to do anything other than tear it off,” Dr. Leone says. “Because it’s easier and more convenient, it can become safer.” You also don’t have to deal with the taste of latex.
Do keep in mind that none of these hacks are FDA-approved in protecting against STIs while functioning as dental dams.
As Dr. Leone notes, “No plastic wrap company is going to advertise ‘Keep your lettuce safe—and your labia!’” With that said, while an actual dental dam is best because it’s designed to protect you during oral sex, these methods are absolutely better than nothing, Dr. Leone says. If you really want to stock up on actual dental dams, good on you—order some online or call various drugstores or health centers to see where you can get as many as you need.
It’s also very much worth noting that this isn’t the only way to stay safe when it comes to oral sex. You should also be getting screened for sexually transmitted infections as recommended based on your sexual practices, age, and other factors. Here’s guidance from the CDC on how often you should get tested, plus where to find the closest testing site to you.
Now that you have these tricks on your side, you can go forth with the knowledge that you don’t have to put yourself at risk during oral sex just because there’s nary a dental dam in site. You have options. Remember that.