Dental Dam

Overview

What is a dental dam?

A dental dam is a thin, flexible piece of latex or polyurethane you can use for protection during oral sex. You can’t use a dental dam as a contraceptive (birth control), but it can reduce your risk of spreading bodily fluids that may carry sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Many people use condoms to protect themselves against STIs. While you can use a condom for mouth-to-penis sex, a dental dam offers protection during mouth-to-vagina sex or mouth-to-anus sex. You place a dental dam over your vagina or anus so it creates a barrier between your partner’s mouth and your genitals or anus. In this way, you’re protecting yourself but still getting clitoral or anal stimulation.

How do dental dams work?

Dental dams work by acting as a barrier during oral sex. You place the dental dam between your mouth and your partner’s vagina or anus. Similar to condoms, they prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You can use a dental dam during oral-vaginal contact (cunnilingus) or oral-anal contact (analingus or rimming). You should use a condom during oral-penile contact (fellatio).

How do I use a dental dam?

Dental dams are easy to use. But it’s important to apply the dental dam carefully to prevent ripping or tearing it. To properly use a dental dam:

  1. Carefully remove the dental dam from the packaging and unfold it.
  2. Lay the dental dam flat over your vagina or anus. Place the dental dam flat over your vulva during oral-vaginal sex. Place the dental dam flat over your anus during oral-anal sex. The dental dam should be big enough to cover your entire vaginal or anal area.
  3. Hold the dental dam in place during oral sex. You may want to apply a water-based or silicone-based lubricant between the dental dam and your vagina or anus. This may help keep the dental dam in place and make oral sex more pleasurable.
  4. Stop engaging in oral sex if the dental dam slips or breaks. Place a new dental dam over your vagina or anus before continuing.
  5. Throw away the dental dam after you use it.

Can you reuse a dental dam?

No. You should only use a dental dam once before throwing it away. You could expose yourself or your partner to a sexually transmitted infection if you utilize a used dental dam.

What are the different types of dental dams?

There are several different kinds of dental dams. Most dental dams are made of latex. But if you or your partner has a latex allergy, you can find some that are made of polyurethane. Dental dams come in different sizes, colors and a variety of flavors. Some are unflavored.

Where can I buy a dental dam?

Dental dams may not be as easy to find as condoms. You may be able to find them in certain drugstores or health clinics, but the easiest way to buy them may be online. Dental dams cost about $1 to $2 each.

Can I make my own dental dam?

If you can’t find a dental dam, you can easily make one out of a condom. To make your own dental dam:

  1. Carefully remove the condom from the packaging, and unroll it.
  2. Use a pair of scissors to snip off the tip of the condom.
  3. Cut off the rolled rubber base of the condom.
  4. Cut the condom lengthwise from the tip to the base.
  5. Lay the condom flat over your vagina or anus.

What do dental dams protect against?

Dental dams can protect against certain sexually transmitted infections. People often think about sexual intercourse when it comes to passing STIs between partners. But you can transmit STIs through oral sex too. Dental dams work by reducing your risk of sharing fluids that may carry STIs. STIs that a dental dam can protect you against include:

  • Syphilis: Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can lead to very serious complications if left untreated. Syphilis comes in four stages. These stages are the primary stage, secondary stage, latent stage and tertiary stage. There are different symptoms with each stage. The first sign of syphilis is a chancre (small sore) that appears where the bacteria entered your body. This usually happens about three weeks after exposure to the bacteria.
  • Gonorrhea: Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection also known as “the clap.” It can affect your genitals, throat or anus. This is why it’s so important to use barrier protection against STIs even when you’re not having penis-in-vagina sex. Gonorrhea can cause penile or vaginal discharge, sore throat or painful urination. But sometimes gonorrhea doesn’t cause any symptoms, so people who are infected can unintentionally transmit it to their sexual partners. Gonorrhea can cause serious health issues if left untreated.
  • Chlamydia: Chlamydia is one of the most commonly transmitted STIs. Like gonorrhea, chlamydia may not cause symptoms. So people who have the infection but don’t know they do can unknowingly infect other people. Additionally, chlamydia can infect your throat and anus as well as your genitals. If symptoms do occur, they may include penile or vaginal discharge, sore throat or painful urination.
  • Hepatitis: Hepatitis is a viral infection. It can cause liver inflammation and lead to liver damage. There are various types of hepatitis, but hepatitis B is the most commonly transmitted STI. Hepatitis B can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer and even death.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): HIV is a virus that causes a disease called acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV weakens your ability to fight infections and cancer by infecting and killing your T cells. It can take a long time for someone with HIV to develop AIDS, but there’s no cure for HIV or AIDS.

Dental dams may also protect you from coming into contact with your partner’s fecal matter during oral-anal sex. Fecal matter may contain bacteria such as Shigella and E. Coli. It can also contain intestinal parasites.

What don’t dental dams protect against?

Dental dams work well to prevent the exchange of fluids during oral sex. But they don’t prevent you from sharing infections that you may get through skin-to-skin contact. STIs that a dental dam doesn’t protect you against include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is a very common STI. About 30 types of HPV can affect your genitals, rectum and anus. In many cases, HPV causes no symptoms. When they do occur, the most common symptom is genital warts. Fourteen types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer.
  • Genital herpes: A virus called herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2) can cause genital herpes. Genital herpes causes painful blisters on your genitals and anus. There’s no cure for herpes. The infection may clear up and then return months or even years later.
  • Pubic lice: Pubic lice, or crabs, are tiny insects that live on your pubic hair. These creatures make small bites in your skin to feed on your blood. Lice are hard to spot, but you may see specks of blood in your underwear. Crabs can cause intense itching but don’t cause any serious harm.

What are some dental dam dos and don’ts?

Some dental dam dos and don’ts include:

DosDont's
Do use a new dental dam every time you engage in oral sex.Don’t use a dental dam more than one time. This includes using the other side of a used dental dam.
Do check for the expiration date on the package of a dental dam.Don’t try to stretch a dental dam. It may tear.
Do make sure there aren’t any rips or tears in a dental dam.Don’t use spermicide with the dental dam, which can cause irritation.
Do keep a dental dam in place the entire time.
Do use water-based or silicone-based lubricants between a dental dam and your skin.Don’t use oil-based lubricants with a dental dam. These can cause dental dams to break.
Do store dental dams in a cool, dry place.
Do throw away a dental dam in a garbage can after you use it.Don’t flush a dental dam down your toilet. It can clog the toilet.

Frequently Asked Questions

How were dental dams invented?

Dentists originally used rubber dental dams to separate sections of the mouth they were working on. This is where they got their name. Dental dams also helped protect against bacterial contamination. In 1998, the FDA gave condom company Glyde USA approval to produce a latex dental dam for oral sex. First known as Glyde Dam Lollyes, the product is now called Sheer® Glyde Dams.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

While you may think people transfer more sexually transmitted infections (STIs) through sexual intercourse, you can still pass along STIs and other infections through oral sex. So it’s important to protect yourself. Dental dams offer an effective means of protection during mouth-to-vagina sex or mouth-to anus sex. You’ll still get a pleasurable feeling, but you’ll also feel good knowing you’re protecting yourself and your partner.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/03/2022.

References

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dental Dam Use. (https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/Dental-dam-use.html) Accessed 5/3/2022.
  • Kumar T, Puri G, Aravinda K, et al. Oral sex and oral health: An enigma in itself. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26692602/) Indian J Sex Transm Dis AIDS. 2015;36(2):129-132. Accessed 5/3/2022.
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Tips for using condoms and dental dams. (https://www.hiv.va.gov/patient/daily/sex/condom-tips.asp) Accessed 5/3/2022.

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