Successful O-ring joint design requires a rigid mechanical mounting that applies a predictable deformation to the O-ring. This introduces a calculated mechanical stress at the O-ring contacting surfaces. As long as the pressure of the fluid being contained does not exceed the contact stress of the O-ring, leaking cannot occur. The pressure of the contained fluid transfers through the essentially incompressible O-ring material, and the contact stress rises with increasing pressure. For this reason, an O-ring can easily seal high pressure as long as it does not fail mechanically. The most common failure is extrusion through the mating parts.

The seal is designed to have a point contact between the O-ring and sealing faces. This allows a high local stress, able to contain high pressure, without exceeding the yield stress of the O-ring body. The flexible nature of O-ring materials accommodates imperfections in the mounting parts. But it is still important to maintain good surface finish of those mating parts, especially at low temperatures where the seal rubber reaches its glass transition temperature and becomes increasingly crystalline. Surface finish is also especially important in dynamic applications. A surface finish that is too rough will abrade the surface of the O-ring, and a surface that is too smooth will not allow the seal to be adequately lubricated by a fluid film.