When used correctly as a barrier against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including acquired immune deficiency syndrome, condoms are 98 precent effective.
Health-care providers at Planned Parenthood of Maryland recommend using latex condoms manufactured by "respectable brand names" and preferably lubricated with the spermicide nonoxynol-9.
While novelty condoms play an important role in "getting people to feel comfortable with the idea of condoms," it is important to inspect them for safety warnings," says Linda A. Geeson, director of public information for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "It's not going to do you any good if it doesn't provide protection," she says.
* Check the expiration date on condom packages. And practice putting on a condom "home alone," says Irwin Rothenberg, administrator of education for the Health Education and Resource Organization (HERO) in Baltimore.
"We always urge women to carry condoms with them if they're going on a date, if there's the possibility of sexual activity," Mr. Rothenberg says.
* To prevent breakage or leaking, condoms should be stored in a cool, dark place. Health care experts also recommend the purchase of prelubricated condoms that are packaged so light does not reach them.
* Use only water-based lubricants with condoms. Oil-based lubricants like Vaseline cause rubber to disintegrate.
* Planned Parenthood gives away condoms and sells key chains and pouches for condom storage. Call (410) 576-1414. Or stop at its health center at 610 N. Howard St. in Baltimore.
HERO sells a variety of condoms in bulk. Call (410) 685-1180.
The Rubber Tree, of Seattle, is the country's oldest mail order condom business. It sells 65 brands of FDA-approved condoms at low prices. Call (206) 633-4750.
For more information about the Maryland Three for Free condom distribution program, call (410) 225-6721.
The Maryland Center for AIDS-Related Educational Services also administers a free condom distribution program. Call (410) 225-1255.
To contact the Condom Resource Center, call (510) 891-0455.