What's THE BEST condom?
There is no one, very-best-in-the-entire-universe condom that is going to be best for everybody the first time or the 10th time or the 100th time. So, I'm afraid we can't give you one solid answer for that.
However, I think I can offer a few suggestions that might make choosing one a bit easier:
- Keep it simple. There are tons of specialty condoms out there with ridges, studs, etc. While some people may really enjoy those, not everybody does. Flavored condoms are great for oral sex, but you don't want those if you are looking for condoms for penetrative activities. So when you're first starting out with condoms, it's probably best to stick to the basics until you get the hang of using them.
- Extra lube is a must... While many condoms are "lubricated," there's really not enough lube on them to do you a heap of good. So, when your picking up condoms, get some extra water-based, condom-safe lube (something like Astroglide, KY Liquid, Wet, etc.). Add a drop on the inside of your condom and lots to the outside, and you will not only be making everything feel better, you'll also further decrease your risks of condom breakage!
- ...but avoid the "fancy" lubes. Condoms that are spermicidally lubricated or lube that has spermicide in it should be avoided. That stuff is basically like dish soap, which is not a hot idea for use inside anyone's body. It can lead to infections, and the major health organizations actually advise against it now because it can increase the risk of passing STIs. Warming, tingling, or numbing lubes are also not such a great idea. Many folks find that they cause uncomfortable irritation or burning, which can certainly put the breaks on whatever is going on! Flavored lubes are great for oral sex, but not so great for penetrative activities. Especially with female partners, as those lubes often contain sugars, which can upset the balance in the vagina and lead to infections. So stick to the plain, water-based (or possibly silicone-based, although those can sometimes also lead to vaginal infections for some female partners) lubes for vaginal or anal penetrative activities. Oil-based lubes and anything that is not actually sold as a lube (so no hand lotion, Vasaline, etc.) should be completely avoided as they can actually damage your condoms and/or lead to infections if they are not actually formulated for genital use!
- Start with a regular sized condom. Unless you know that you have had problems with regular sized condoms in the past, it's best to start with those. They work for the majority of individuals. You will know you need a larger condom if you find they are feeling uncomfortably tight around the base or if you have problems with them splitting in that area. You'll know you need a smaller condom if it seems loose around the base or you have problems with slippage in that area. (FYI, the "sizing" on condoms pretty much refers to the ring size. They are all big enough in length to accommodate any penis. In fact, you can fit practically your whole arm into a condom if you really stretch it (of course you shouldn't go back and use that condom if you try this!), so length should never be a problem.)
- Thicker doesn't necessarily mean safer. Recent testing has shown that extra thick condoms really don't provide any extra protection. So using regular or ultra thin is just fine. If you're curious, you can find the safety testing ratings for condoms online.
- Check the expiration date and store them properly. The best condom is one that's not over it's expiration date and that has been stored in good locations. Luckily, condom manufacturers print the expiration date right on the box and then also on the individual condom packets, so that's really easy to check. Also make sure that you're storing and carrying your condoms in places that are safe and that have moderate temperatures (in other words, don't keep them around sharp objects, don't keep them in your wallet where they might get too warm, etc.).
- Practice makes perfect. Get some extra condoms and practice putting them on when you're by yourself. Lots of the problems that people have with condoms could easily be solved if they'd just try them out before they were in a partnered sexual situation and started feeling stressed and pressured about hurrying or breaking the mood or whatever. If you're familiar with the condoms beforehand, it'll be much easier with a partner.
- Any condom is better when it's put on correctly. I'll link you to some articles, including our Simple Condom Primer, that will help explain how to do this. Shoes are more comfortable when they're laced correctly and tied comfortably (not too tight, not too loose)...the same is true for condoms (well, except without the laces). Condoms feel better and are less likely to fail when you put them on correctly.
So, while I know that's not an easy, "buy brand ABC and you'll love it" style answer, if you follow those steps, you should be able to get a good starter condom for you. Now you may find that the first condom brand/style you try is not perfect for you, and that's ok. You may find that you want to branch out and try other things, which is cool. I firmly believe that people would have fewer problems with their condoms if they were snobbier about what they were using. We'll spend ages trying on shoes to find the pair that fit just perfectly, but most folks will think nothing of buying the brand of condoms they saw on a TV commercial without trying others, or picking up the first box they see and sticking with that, or buying the same condoms over and over again even though they aren't really all that comfortable! That makes absolutely no good sense! Give your condom choices at least the same amount of thought that you give to buying a good pair of shoes. So once you've got the hang of condoms, try out some different brands and styles until you find the ones that feel BEST for you and your partner. Many online condom retailers will allow you to buy condoms "grab-bag" style where you get lots of different types to try out (another nice aspect of shopping online (even just browsing) is that they usually list the dimensions of the condoms, which can be helpful if you are having fit problems). Or, try buying a new type everytime you go to the store (if you get some you don't like, just toss them out and get something else...they're not that expensive). You could also ask your partner if he or she has a favorite condom and give those a try! The search for the perfect condom doesn't have to be lame or boring. It's pretty darn cool to try out different condoms with a partner and find out what you like. It might be fun to make up a list of the different condoms you've tried and "rate" or "grade" all of them! Make it an experiment and an adventure.
You also mention that you've been sexually active in the past without using condoms. If you haven't been tested since, then now is a perfect time to head to your health care provider and get checked out. Everyone who is sexually active should be getting screened at least once each year. If you're with a new partner, it is also wise to get checked out once before becoming sexually active with them, again six-months later, and then start the once annually schedule. You should also get checked after any instance of unprotected contact. Not all STI's show up right away, and many can be asymptomatic in men (meaning that you may be carrying something but not have any obvious symptoms). Even if you haven't displayed any symptoms, that doesn't mean you're guaranteed STI-free. Also, herpes and HPV can be passed around condoms because they don't cover the entire region of contact, so it's important to get tested for those even if you are planning on using condoms with a new partner. So head out and get yourself (and your partner, start good habits early!) checked.
You may find these pages helpful:
Condom Basics: A User's Manual
Your Map to the Condom Aisle
Safe, Sound & Sexy: A Safer Sex How-To
STI Risk Assessment: The Cliff's Notes
Hey, Boyfriend! Male Reproductive Choices