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Plastic Wrap and Oral Sex

Does Plastic Wrap Provide Protection for Oral Sex?

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Updated May 14, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

It's hard to know when people first started talking about, and using, plastic wrap as part of their sex activities. Inexpensive plastic wrap for food storage has been around since the 1950s. Undoubtedly it was soon after its introduction into the consumer market that people would have started experimenting with sexual uses for the tight, stretchy, somewhat binding material.

But public discussion and instruction on using plastic wrap as a safer sex barrier during oral sex (particularly cunnilingus and analingus) likely didn't happen until after HIV/AIDS became part of the public consciousness. Google's first entry in their time-line tool is from this 1988 reference. And many safer sex manuals from the late 1980s and early 1990s include some mention of plastic wrap as a barrier for oral/genital and oral/anal contact.

What's missing from most manuals and online resources that talk about using plastic wrap is any reference to scientific studies about the safety of plastic wrap as a sexual barrier. It's missing because it doesn't exist.

In June, 2009 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their oral sex fact sheet to reflect this lack of research, and make it clear that as far as they are concerned, plastic wrap can't be said to provide protection from STDs:

"At least one scientific article has suggested that plastic food wrap may be used as a barrier to protect against herpes simplex virus during oral-vaginal or oral-anal sex. However, there are no data regarding the effectiveness of plastic food wrap in decreasing transmission of HIV and other STDs in this manner and it is not manufactured or approved by the FDA for this purpose."

What We Know
So where did the idea that you can use plastic wrap as a safer sex barrier come from? It probably came from people who used plastic wrap either out of necessity or creativity. In the U.S. community organizations began responding to the spread of HIV/AIDS well before any organized national health plan was in place. This meant that much of what was taught about how to protect yourself came from people's experiences first, with research coming in after the fact to support (or in some cases contradict) safer sex practices of the time.

We know some STDs are transmitted by fluid exchange and others by skin to skin contact. Oral/genital and oral/anal contact are both ways of contracting STDs. Dental dams and male condoms cut open, are recommended as a way of reducing the risk of this kind of sex play. It seems reasonable to say that some barrier is better than no barrier, and this may very well be the origins of the plastic wrap suggestion.

In terms of plastic wrap safety, while there has been no research on its use in a sexual context, some brands have been tested in medical research. Plastic wrap has been found to be an effective barrier to preventing the transmission of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and the transmission of herpes simplex virus. This research tells us nothing about the effectiveness as a barrier during sex. Which brings us to...

What We Don't Know
Because no one has studied how plastic wrap works during sex play, we don't really know how effective it is. Simply knowing that in a medical study it will prevent a virus from passing through it doesn't tell us how it will function when it comes into contact with friction and body fluids during oral sex. We don't know how easily plastic wrap tears during oral-genital contact, we don't know if it can get small tears that aren't easily noticeable, we don't know what if any impact the particular sexual use of the material would have on its effectiveness as a barrier. In short, as the CDC suggests, we don't know enough to say how effective it is in reducing the risk of transmission of STDs including HIV. We need research in order to know more.

We also don't know anything about the claims regarding microwaveable vs. non-microwaveable plastic wrap. Many safer sex guides claim that you should only use non-microwaveable plastic wrap, as the microwaveable kind is designed to have pores that open when it is heated. That claim was not made in the study regarding plastic wrap and herpes, and is not addressed in the other peer-reviewed research. Many brands of plastic wrap no longer even indicate if they are or are not microwaveable, making this a piece of information that, even if we had data to back it up, is not very helpful for people trying to figure out the best way to protect themselves.

The Bottom Line
Given what we know, and what we don't know, the bottom official line seems to be that plastic wrap may or may not be an effective way to prevent the transmission of STDs during oral sex. This is not to say that there's no point in using it, particularly if the choice is between plastic wrap or no barrier at all. Given what we know about its effectiveness in clinical settings, it's very likely that using plastic wrap provides some extra protection. What we don't know is just how much.

As Mark Rabnett points out in a thoughtful review of this topic, this lack of research may not change, as one of the main populations who we know use plastic wrap for protection is prisoners. The other early adopters of plastic wrap were lesbians. These are not groups with a tremendous amount of political or financial clout to influence research agendas at universities or government agencies. Similarly, if we are waiting for the plastic wrap companies to get on board, we'll be waiting a while.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oral Sex and HIV Risk. June, 2009. Accessed May, 2010.

Rabnett, M. Oral sex and plastic wrap: the CDC sandwiched between a riddle and an enigma. October, 2009. Accessed May, 2010.

White, J.C. "HIV Risk Assessment and Prevention in Lesbians and Women who Have Sex with Women: Practical Information for Clinicians." Health Care for Women International Vol. 18, Iss. 2 (1997): 127-138.

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