Dental dams (also know as oral dams) have been around for more than a century, though their recommendation for use as a safer sex practice is relatively new. In fact, they began their lives in the dental world, serving as a tool for dentists to avoid saliva passing from one area of the mouth to another during dental work. Many years later, they were initially championed as part of the conversation around using a condom for oral sex during the 1980’s at the peak of the HIV and AIDS crisis in the US.
Despite this long history, they are often hard to find in drug stores and other popular places where people purchase sexual health products (though they can be found here on our sister site).
But not to worry! We have built a dedicated guide to the oral dam, including a definition, how they work for safer sexual activity, some shortcomings and how you can fashion one right at home using a standard latex condom (with 5 simple steps).
What is a Dental Dam
So let’s start with a basic definition: dental dams are square-shaped latex or polyurethane (for those with latex allergies) sheets that can be placed over the vulva or anus to serve as a physical barrier during oral stimulation. Their purpose is to act as a barrier method to avoid direct contact with bodily fluids or skin, offering lower potential risk for the transmission of oral sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
When using a dental dam, there are a few things to remember:
- Similar to other barrier methods, once the dental dam comes into contact with any skin, it should not be reversed or reused. If this happens, you should discard and use a new one.
- It is important to hold the corners of the dental dam to avoid any slippage or potential exposure, though you can add a drop or two of personal lubricant to keep the dental dam in place and enhance your partner’s pleasure. This will also prevent any tearing or breaking.
Because dental dams are less widely available than standard condoms, you may consider starting your search at an sex shop or ordering online. Depending on your personal style, there are often a range of sizes, colors and even flavors! The price will typically be slightly more expensive than a standard condom, averaging within the $1 to $2 range.
Similar to other latex and polyurethane products designed to be barrier methods, you will also want to ensure that they are stored in a cool, safe place, and have been inspected for tears, damage or expiration before use.
Ready to learn more?
What They Do Protect Against
Based on their main function as a barrier method, dental dams can help protect against transmission of some oral STIs. By limiting direct contact with bodily fluids, including vaginal fluid, dental dams are believed to offer greater protection against STIs common transmitted through oral sex, such as:
Additionally, dental dams also may offer protection against STIs that are less commonly transmitted through oral sex, including:
- Hepatitis A, B and C
Impressive range of protection right? We think so, too. Please note that this effectiveness is only when they are used properly. However, as with all safer sex practices, the protection offered by dental dams is greater than the alternative (no barrier at all), which leaves partner(s) open to the risk of STI transmission.
What They Don’t Protect Against
Unfortunately, dental dams cannot offer fool-proof protection against all STIs and conditions, and it’s worth discussing some of the infections that you may still face greater risk for in using a dental dam. The greatest risk is to be exposed to infections or conditions that can be transmitted through direct skin contact.
If you come into skin-to-skin contact as you perform oral sex, whether or not you are using a dental dam, you may potentially be at risk for:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Pubic lice (or crabs)
Bummer! As with all sexual experiences and partner(s), it is important to have a conversation about safety and discuss any ongoing sexual health conditions to better mitigate risk of transmission and determine the best approach to safer sex.
And while it may seem rather obvious by this point, dental dams should not be used to protect against pregnancy (though there are a wealth of products to prevent pregnancy on our site here and depending on where you live, emergency contraception may be available at your local drug store).
Lastly, latex dental dams should never be used with oil-based lubricants like petroleum jelly or certain creams and lotions, as with all latex sexual health products. The oil in these lubricants can cause damage to the latex (specifically the rubber compounds in the latex), therefore making it likely the latex oral dam will break.
How to Make Your Own Dental Dam
Another solution to finding dental dams in-store or online is to make your own at home. Because they’re made out of the same material as standard condoms, all you will need are a few materials and you’re good to go:
- Latex or polyurethane condom
- Clean hands and a sterile workspace
Sounds easy enough, right? Now, that you’re ready here are the very simple steps:
- Remove the condom for the packaging being careful not to damage or tear it in the process
- Cut the reservoir tip, removing about 1 cm of length
- Cut the the base of the condom off, so the rolled portion is no longer attached
- Cut the condom length-wise, from base to tip
- Unfold and use in place of a formal dental dam!
Please remember that even your homemade masterpiece cannot be reused or reversed, the same as a store-bought dental dam.