Sexual Health
    1234 · 20 min read

    How to Have Safe Sex

    If you are in a sexual relationship, or thinking about having sex with another person, it is important to be sure that you are not putting yourself at risk. If you practise safe sex, you can be reassured that both you and your partner are as protected as possible against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancy.

    In this guide, we'll explain what safe sex is and what you can do to look after your sexual health.

    Key Takeaways

    Practice Safe Sex:

    Safe sex involves using barrier methods like condoms to prevent the exchange of bodily fluids, which helps protect against STIs and unplanned pregnancies. Regular sexual health screenings also ensure safer sex practices.

    Use Condoms Correctly:

    Condoms should be used from the start to the end of sexual activity and should be the correct size. Avoid using oil-based lubricants, check the expiration date, and never reuse condoms. Other barriers like latex gloves and dental dams can also be used for protection during different types of sexual activity.

    Maintain Good Sexual Health:

    Communicate openly with your partner about your preferences and boundaries. Limit the number of sexual partners and get regular health screenings to reduce the risk of STIs. Be cautious with alcohol consumption to avoid risky sexual behaviours, and consider intimate alternatives to sex if needed. If you've had unprotected sex, seek STI testing and consider pregnancy testing if your period is late.

    What is Safe Sex?

    The term safe sex refers to sex in which there is no exchange of semen, vaginal fluids, or blood between two partners. Safe sex can be achieved by ensuring you use a barrier method, such as condoms. Using a condom prevents body fluids from being transferred from one person to another. This in turn means that a sexually transmitted infection is not passed on (Unity Sexual Health, 2024).

    However, safe sex can also involve enjoying sexual or intimate activities that have a low risk of STI transmission

    Attending  regular sexual health screens helps to ensure that sex between you and your partner is safer.  

    How to Have Safe Sex

    A condom with sunglasses on smiling, holding up a sign that says 'wrap it up' on it.


    When used correctly, condoms offer the best protection against STIs and unplanned pregnancy.  The barrier of the condom prevents semen, blood, or vaginal fluid from being transferred from one partner to the other. To offer the best protection, condoms should be used in the following way:

    • Always use a new condom, and check that it is within the use-by date (Your Sexual Health Matters, 2024)

    • Choose a condom that is the correct size for you or your partner

    • Don’t be tempted to use your teeth to open the packet, as this may tear the condom

    • Take care not to tear the condom with jewellery or a fingernail when putting it on

    • Use a condom from the very beginning of sex to the end, as STIs can be transmitted through pre-ejaculate as well as during ejaculation

    • Only use water-based lubricants with a condom, as an oil-based lubricant could damage it

    • If you use sex toys or vibrators during sex with a partner, cover them with a condom.

    It is important to remember that even when used correctly, condoms are not 100% effective. Bear in mind that:

    • Condoms only act as a barrier across the area they cover. Pubic lice, herpes and genital warts not covered by a condom can therefore still be transmitted even if a condom is used.

    • Condoms can occasionally break – the risk of this happening can be reduced by storing condoms at room temperature, only using a condom that is within its use-by date, and not using lubricants other than water-based lubricants.

    • You should not try to re-apply a condom. If you remove a condom or it comes off, use a new one.

    Other Barrier Methods

    In some cases, safer sex can be achieved with another barrier method. This might include:

    • A latex glove for penetration of the vagina or anus with a finger (Terrance Higgins Trust, 2024)

    • A dental dam – a sheet of latex that is placed over the female genital area during oral sex to prevent STI transmission.

    Don’t Rely on Diaphragms

    It is sometimes incorrectly assumed that if a woman uses a diaphragm then this will also protect against STIs. Although a diaphragm protects against unplanned pregnancy, it does not protect against STIs (NHS Inform, 2024). Condoms must therefore also be used to prevent STI transmission.

    Supporting Good Sexual Health

    As well as the above practical steps, there are other ways that you can look after your sexual health to minimise the risk of STIs or unplanned pregnancy. 

    Communicate with your Partner

    Explain to your partner what you enjoy, and be clear about the things you don’t like or don’t want to do. This way, the two of you are clear on what you can both enjoy as part of a safe sexual relationship (NHS Sexual Health Tayside, 2024). 

    Get Regular Sexual Health Screens

    Making sure that you regularly have a sexual health screen means that you can be sure you do not have an STI (Terrance Higgins Trust, 2024). You may choose to get tested in between partners, or if you are concerned that you may have had unsafe or higher risk sex. 

    Limit the Number of Partners

    If you are in a monogamous sexual relationship with your partner, and neither of you has an STI, then you can be reassured that this is the safest sexual practice. 

    The more partners you have, the higher the risk that an STI could be transmitted to you. The rates of STI's is increasing in young Londoners who tend to have more sexual partners and are less likley to use protection (GOV.UK, 2016). As some STIs do not have any symptoms, you could be in a sexual relationship with someone who does not realise they have an infection. For this reason, it is important to always use condoms with each partner to prevent STI transmission.

    Be Aware of Alcohol

    Alcohol can be a great way to relax and unwind, but enjoying more than one or two drinks could affect your decision making (GOV.UK, 2024). Being drunk can also lead to risk-taking behaviours, so it may be helpful to be aware of how giving up alcohol can benefit you. Try to avoid having unsafe sex when you are not thinking clearly, or when your inhibitions might be lowered when you've been drinking.

    Intimate Alternatives to Sex

    If you or your partner are being treated for an STI, or if you want to enjoy intimacy without sex, there are many sensual alternatives you could try (Stroke Association, 2024), including:

    • Cuddling

    • Massage

    • Having a bath together

    • Kissing (although deep kissing could lead to the transmission of certain STIs)

    • Masturbation or mutual masturbation

    A man and a woman holding hands whilst cuddling in bed

    Advice: Preparing for safe sex

    Being prepared for safe sex is not a mood killer. Rather, being sure about what you want and need allows you to enjoy sex without the stress of making decisions part way through.

    The following may help you to ensure you have safe sex every time:

    • Have condoms ready and nearby – for example, in your bedside table, or kept in your wallet or purse

    • Communicate with your partner beforehand – for example, if condoms reduce pleasure, using a water-based lubricant can increase sensitivity.

    • Remember that condoms do not offer 100% protection against STIs or pregnancy. Consider whether you need an additional barrier such as a dental dam, or if a hormonal contraceptive such as the pill is required to prevent pregnancy.

    What should I do if I have had unprotected sex?

    If you have had unprotected sex and feel worried about STIs or an unplanned pregnancy, you should visit your local sexual health clinic for assessment and a sexual health screen.

    If you prefer, you can request STI testing kits online for home testing. 

    Getting confirmation of your sexual health status is important, as effective treatment is available for all STIs. 

    If you are worried about an unplanned pregnancy, pregnancy tests can be purchased from pharmacies and supermarkets. A pregnancy test may not be accurate until around the time your period would have started, or even a few days later than this. You should therefore repeat a pregnancy test if your period is late, or does not start as expected despite an earlier negative test. 

    Final Thoughts

    Practising safe sex ensures that sexual relationships are pleasurable but carry a low risk of the transmission of infections. Open communication, the use of condoms, and being prepared can all make it easier to have safer sex every time.

    If you are concerned that you may have an STI, visit your local sexual health clinic for screening. This way, effective treatment can be started if required.

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