Spermicides are a type of contraceptive that work by stopping sperm from reaching an egg. It's inserted into your vagina prior to sex and comes in many forms like gels, creams, foams and suppositories. You can buy spermicides over the counter. Spermicides are more effective when they are combined with other forms of birth control.
Spermicides are a type of birth control. When placed in your vagina before sexual intercourse, it stops sperm from getting to an egg and creating a pregnancy. Spermicides come in many different forms: gels, creams, foams, films or suppositories. It contains a special chemical that impairs sperm and stops it from reaching an egg. Spermicides need to be placed in your vagina up to 30 minutes before sex to be effective.
When used alone, spermicides are not a reliable form of birth control. Many couples choose to use a spermicide in addition to another contraceptive like a condom. It's best to think of spermicides as an extra layer of protection when you are trying to avoid getting pregnant.
Spermicides contain a chemical that damages sperm. Most spermicides contain the chemical nonoxynol-9 (N-9). While it doesn't actually kill the sperm, it does stop it from reaching an egg. Spermicides work by blocking the entrance to your cervix (the lowest part of your uterus) and by stopping sperm from swimming up to an egg. You must follow the packaging instructions for spermicide to work. If it's not applied correctly, it's ineffective.
Spermicide alone is about 70% effective in preventing pregnancy. It's one of the least effective methods of birth control when used by itself. If you’re trying to prevent pregnancy, you should combine it with another form of birth control like a condom or diaphragm. This will increase its effectiveness in preventing pregnancy.
If you decide to use a spermicide, it's important to use it correctly every time and follow the instructions on the package. The instructions will vary depending on what type of spermicide you use.
The general guidelines for using spermicides are:
All spermicides work by preventing sperm from fertilizing an egg. Spermicides come in many forms and are applied in different ways. You can select the option that works best for you. Be sure to read the directions on the package and wash your hands before applying spermicide.
There's a new contraceptive gel similar to spermicide called Phexxi®. It works in the same way: You place it in your vagina before sex and it prevents sperm from meeting an egg. This is available by prescription only.
Some people may have side effects from the chemical in the spermicide. The most common side effect is irritation to the vagina or penis. Once this irritation occurs, it’s easier for infection to enter the skin. Spermicides are generally safe, but if it causes redness or irritation, it's best to stop using them. There are many other forms of birth control that may work better for you.
Some of the advantages of using a spermicide are:
The greatest disadvantages of spermicides are:
Talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns about using spermicide as a birth control method. They may recommend another contraceptive method for you based on your health history.
No, a spermicide doesn't protect you against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Using a condom is the best way to protect against STIs when having sexual intercourse. Using a spermicide can actually increase your risk for infections because it irritates the cells that protect you from infection. This weakens those cells and makes you more susceptible to bacteria.
Contact your healthcare provider if you're using a spermicide and experience the following:
There are condoms you can buy at the store that are pre-coated in nonoxynol-9, the chemical in spermicide. It doesn't damage the condom in any way and provides an extra layer of protection against pregnancy. You can also buy condoms and spermicide separately but use them together. In this case, you insert the spermicide into your vagina and your partner wears a condom. Using a condom with a spermicide also helps protect you from STIs. Be careful — spermicide condoms expire and won't be effective if it's past expiration.
Spermicides can be bought over the counter at most drugstores and supermarkets. You don't need a prescription to purchase a spermicide. Most of the time they're located near condoms, pregnancy tests or tampons. Spermicides are relatively affordable and shouldn't cost more than $15 a package (packages usually contain several applications).
It's best to avoid swallowing spermicide. The chemicals can be dangerous if ingested. It's meant to be used in and around your vagina only. Once it has been applied to your vagina, you should be careful engaging in oral sex.
There hasn't been any evidence that spermicides cause any harm when used as directed. Spermicides are considered safe for pregnant people and have not been linked to birth defects (if an accidental pregnancy would occur).
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Spermicide can be effective in preventing pregnancy when it's used with other forms of birth control. It's important to use spermicides as directed and pay attention to any side effects like irritation or sores.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/11/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.