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Spermicide is a product used to prevent pregnancy. It works by preventing sperm from reaching an egg. You place it in your vagina before sex, and most types are available without a prescription, making it an accessible option for preventing unwanted pregnancy.
It comes in many forms, like foams, gels, and tablets, and can be used either on its own or along with other birth control methods like condoms.
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What is spermicide?
Spermicide is a type of birth control that stops sperm from reaching an egg. It is available as a foam, gel, tablet, cream, or suppository. It’s also found as a coating on some condoms.
You place spermicide into the vagina, usually no more than one hour before sex, then leave it there for several hours after sex to make sure you get optimal protection against pregnancy (CDC, 2022).
Spermicide works best when paired with a barrier method such as the male condom, diaphragm, or cervical cap. When used appropriately, spermicide should stop any sperm that manage to get around the barrier.
How effective is spermicide?
When you use it correctly, and on its own, spermicide is about 72% effective at preventing pregnancy, meaning that 28 out of every 100 women using spermicide get pregnant each year (Eisenberg, 2012).
As mentioned, adding additional methods (like oral contraceptive pills or barrier methods like condoms) improves the effectiveness and further reduces the chance of pregnancy. Condoms have the added value of preventing sexually transmitted infections.
How does spermicide work?
Spermicide contains a chemical that prevents pregnancy by immobilizing sperm, essentially preventing sperm from reaching an egg. Nonoxynol-9 is the active ingredient in most spermicides. It damages the outer layer of sperm and stops them from reaching an egg (Burke, 2010).
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Benefits of using spermicide
There are many benefits to using spermicide:
- It’s relatively inexpensive.
- You can purchase it without a prescription at your local drug store.
- It doesn’t affect your hormone levels, limiting side effects associated with things like oral hormonal contraceptives (the birth control pill).
- It’s easy to use.
- You can use it just when you have sex, rather than constantly, like hormonal birth control options.
Another perk is that a partner with a vagina can use it on their own, without relying on their partner with a penis. Also, you don’t need to interrupt sex to use it since you put it in the vagina before you have sex.
How to use spermicide
Spermicides are effective for a specific amount of time, and this time may vary from one product to another. Read the instructions ahead of time to know how long before sex you should use the product. For example, some spermicides must be placed in the vagina at least 15 minutes before sex to be effective, while others can be placed in the vagina within one hour of having sex.
With some types of spermicide, you apply the product with your fingers, and for others, you use an applicator. It’s similar to inserting a tampon. You leave it in place, usually for six hours after sex, and then remove it.
Correctly timing the use of spermicide and using a barrier method every time you have sex is the best way to reduce the chance of pregnancy with spermicide.
Different types of spermicide
Because spermicide comes in many different forms, it’s important to carefully read the instructions on the label before use. Here are some key takeaways about a few different kinds of spermicides.
Spermicidal lubricant is a two-in-one lube and spermicide.
One example is Gynol Gel, a vaginal jelly. Spermicidal lubricants can make sex more enjoyable and safer by reducing friction on condoms and preventing damage to the condoms. But make sure the type you’re using is compatible with the condoms you’re using (if you’re using them) since some types of lubricant can compromise the integrity of a condom.
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Vaginal contraceptive sponge
Sponge birth control, also known as the contraceptive sponge, is a small round piece of polyurethane foam coated in spermicide.
You wet the sponge, then use your fingers to push it deep inside the vagina, against the cervix. Protection begins right away and lasts for 24 hours, meaning you can have sex as many times as you like in the same 24-hour period without replacing it.
The key is to leave the sponge in place for six hours after having sex, but do not leave it in longer than 30 hours. Leaving anything in your vagina for too long (including tampons) increases the risk of a severe infection that can cause toxic shock syndrome. To remove, gently tug on the string loop and discard the sponge (DailyMed-a, 2018).
Vaginal contraceptive film
Vaginal contraceptive film is a thin film that dissolves in the vagina. You insert the film as far as it will go into the vagina at least 15 minutes before sex. It remains effective for three hours, but you should insert a new film every time you have sex, even if it’s within the same three hours (DailyMed-b, 2018).
Spermicide condoms are coated with a layer of spermicide. Condoms not only help prevent pregnancy, but they help protect against sexually transmitted infections. When used perfectly, condoms with spermicide are more than 99% effective at preventing pregnancy (Kestelman, 1991).
Risks and side effects of spermicide
Spermicide is considered a safe product. Nonoxynol-9 does not affect your hormones, menstrual cycle, or your ability to get pregnant in the future. It will not harm an unborn baby if you become pregnant or use it while you’re pregnant.
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Some people experience genital irritation from spermicide, especially with frequent use. This has the potential to lead to urinary tract infections (UTIs) (Burke, 2010).
Switch to a different contraceptive method if you notice itching, burning, a rash, or other irritation of the vagina or penis. These symptoms can also be associated with sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If you experience these symptoms, especially if you’re sexually active with a new or multiple partners, it’s a good idea to get tested.
Another potential downside is that spermicide is known to have an unpleasant taste or odor.
The essential part of any contraceptive method is to use it the right way every time you have sex. There are many different options for preventing pregnancy and practicing safe sex, so exploring which one is right for you and your partner or partners is a good idea to make sure you stay safe.
- Burke, A. E., Barnhart, K., Jensen, J. T., et al. (2010). Contraceptive efficacy, acceptability, and safety of C31G and nonoxynol-9 spermicidal gels: a randomized controlled trial. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 116(6), 1265–1273. doi:10.1097/AOG.0b013e3181fc3b1a Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3332092/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2022). Contraception. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/index.htm
- DailyMed-a. (2018). Today vaginal contraceptive sponge drug facts. Retrieved from https://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/fda/fdaDrugXsl.cfm?setid=6b4e54d7-6ba8-4400-bd52-75d112e6fe50&type=display
- DailyMed-b. (2018). VCF vaginal contraceptive film drug facts. Retrieved from https://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/fda/fdaDrugXsl.cfm?setid=92f8eee8-2456-4baf-a85e-1335c80d7fcd&type=display
- Eisenberg, D. L., Secura, G. M., Madden, T. E., et al. (2012). Knowledge of contraceptive effectiveness. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 206(6), 479.e1–479.e4799. doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2012.04.012 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4007217/
- Kestelman, P. & Trussell, J. (1991). Efficacy of the simultaneous use of condoms and spermicides. Family Planning Perspectives, 23(5), 226–232. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1743276/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.