What Is a Dental Dam and When Do I Need One?

Dental Dams for Safe Oral Sex

Dental Dams
What is a dental dam and how might it reduce your risk of STDs from oral sex?. Photo © Dawn Stacey

You may have heard of dental dams, or instead, you may be asking how you can make oral sex safer. Let's take a look at exactly what dental dams are, how they are used, how to buy or make them, and why they can be important in reducing your risk of sexually transmitted diseases during oral sex.

Dental Dams: Definition

Dental dams are thin pieces of latex that can be used to protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) during oral sex or rimming (anilingus).

They come in the shape of a small square or rectangle and each piece should be used only one time.

Although dental dams are usually made from latex, latex-free kinds are available if you have a latex allergy.

How Were Dental Dams Developed?

Dental dams were originally developed as a medical device that was used by dentists. A dentist used the dental dam to isolate the area of the mouth being treated and to prevent bacterial contamination.

Now, dental dams are also used during oral-vaginal sex and oral-anal sex. Without the protection afforded by dental dams, one can easily contract an STD through the exchange of vaginal fluid or blood if one of the partners is already infected. Dental dams can also act as a barrier against parasites during oral-anal sex.

How to Use a Dental Dam

During oral-vaginal sex (also called cunnilingus,) simply place the dental dam between your mouth and the vagina.

During oral-anal sex or rimming (also called anilingus,) place the dental dam between your mouth and the anus.

Again, you should only use a dental dam one time.

Do's and Don'ts of Using a Dental Dam

In order to use a dental dam properly and reduce your risk of STDs as much as possible, follow these tips:

  • Once you use a dental dam, you need to throw it away. Never reuse a dental dam or you could be exposed to bacteria or viruses that are sexually transmitted.
  • You should never flip (or turn over) a dental dam that has already been used. Likewise, applying your mouth to a part of the dental dam that was exposed to bodily fluids in and around the vagina or anus could result in contracting organisms that are present.
  • Dental dams can be used with lubricants for increased sensation. You can put a bit of lubricant on the side of the dental dam that touches the skin. This helps to keep the latex from sticking. Just make sure that you don't use oil-based lubricants or spermicides.
  • Companies have also created flavored dental dams. They hope the fun flavors will encourage people to use them.

Where to Buy Dental Dams

You can buy dental dams at some drugstores (they should be located in the family planning aisle) and from various public health departments. Unfortunately, many people find that dental dams are hard to find. They can also be somewhat expensive. You can also buy dental dams online, which can reduce your risk of embarrassment if purchasing such items makes you blush.

Make Your Own Dental Dams

If you can't find dental dams at your local store, or if they cost too much, there's good news. You can actually make your own dental dams at home (unlike condoms which should never be made from plastic wrap.) All you need is a condom and scissors: 

  1. Cut off the tip of the condom.
  2. Cut off the rubber base of the condom.
  3. Cut the condom lengthwise, down the side (from tip to base).
  4. You should end up with a rectangular dental dam!

If you are going to make your own dental dam, it's best to use a non-lubricated latex condom. If the condom is lubricated, make sure that it does not contain spermicide, as this could numb your tongue or taste funny. A flavored condom may actually be your best option, simply because it's supposed to taste good! You can also find a flavored lubricant to use as well.

Keep in mind, though, that using an actual dental dam is the best option.

This is because dental dams are usually larger than homemade dental dams, and you may accidentally poke a do-it-yourself dental dam with scissors when you are cutting it.

Some people also use Saran Wrap as makeshift dental dams. Though this may be better than using nothing at all, there is little to no research about how effective plastic wrap is in preventing STDs. Also, the thickness of the plastic used to make Saran Wrap may dull sensation.

Oral Sex and the Risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

In learning about dental dams, you may be wondering how often these infections are transmitted through oral sex. The truth is, that while oral sex may be less likely to result in acquiring an STD than vaginal or anal sex, it still happens frequently.

STDs that may be transmitted via oral sex include:

  • Syphilis
  • Gonorrhea
  • Herpes
  • Chlamydia
  • HPV

Many people are aware that human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to cervical cancer, but fewer are aware that HPV transmitted through oral sex is an important risk factor for head and neck cancers.

Bottom Line on Using a Dental Dam for Oral Sex

Oral sex can lead to sexually transmitted diseases just as vaginal and anal sex, and as condoms can reduce your risk of contracting STDs through vaginal and anal sex, the proper use of a dental dam may help to prevent STDs with oral sex. At this time there are few studies that have looked at the precise benefit of dental dams in preventing STDs, but it's likely that they can substantially reduce your risk.

Before using a dental dam it's important to know how to use them properly and to follow the do's and don'ts of best practice. You may be able to buy dental dams at your pharmacy or may need to look for them online. You can also make your own dental dam (though smaller) at home by using a condom.

Keep in mind that many STDs can cause damage even if you don't have any symptoms. If you are concerned, make sure to make an appointment with your doctor to talk about STD testing and how to best reduce your risk of STDs in the future.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dental Dam Use. Updated 08/12/16. https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/dental-dam-use.html

Kumar, T., Puri, G., Aravinda, K. et al. Oral Sex and Oral Health: An Enigma in Itself. Indian Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. 2015. 36(2):129-132.

Richters, J., Prestage, G., Schneider, K., and S. Clayton. Do Women Use Dental Dams? Safer Sex Practices of Lesbians and Other Women Who Have Sex With Women. Sexual Health. 2010. 7(2):165-9.

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