What is a spermicide?
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.
How does spermicide work?
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.
How effective is spermicide?
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.
How do you use spermicide?
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:
- You need to insert spermicide deep into your vagina.
- It should be inserted at least 10 to 15 minutes before sex for it to be effective.
- Most spermicides are only effective for 60 minutes.
- Reapply spermicide each time you have sex.
- Never wash out or remove spermicide after having sex.
- Nothing else should go in your vagina for at least six hours so it can continue to work.
What are the different kinds of spermicides?
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.
- Spermicide gel, cream or jelly: Gels, creams and jellies typically come in tubes and contain an applicator (similar to a tampon applicator). The benefit of spermicide in these forms is that it can double as a lubricant. First, fill the applicator according to the instructions. Make sure the applicator is inserted deep into your vagina before releasing the spermicide. These are most effective when applied 10 to 15 minutes before intercourse.
- Spermicide foams: Spermicide foams come in an aerosol can and contain an applicator. You will fill the applicator with the foam according to the directions on the package. Typically, you have to shake the can to activate the foam before dispensing the spermicide. This type of spermicide only lasts about 30 minutes, so you should have intercourse within that time.
- Spermicide suppositories: This type of spermicide comes in a tablet that melts once it's inside your vagina. Like other forms, you need to insert the suppository as close to your cervix as possible and at least 10 to 15 minutes before sex. You may feel it dissolve but not always.
- Spermicide condoms: Condoms are pre-coated in spermicide. Spermicide condoms are used just like regular condoms but can be more expensive and expire sooner. Think of spermicide condoms as getting two birth control methods in one product.
- Spermicide film: A small, thin sheet of film is inserted into your vagina as close to the cervix as possible. It's coated in spermicide and fully melts once it's inside your vagina. It needs to be inserted at least 15 minutes before intercourse so it has time to dissolve.
- Spermicide sponge: A soft, small sponge containing spermicide is moistened with water. Once it's wet, you insert the sponge into your vagina. The benefit of this method is you can insert the sponge up to 24 hours prior to intercourse. However, you must leave the sponge in for at least six hours after intercourse. It's one of the more expensive forms of spermicide available.
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.
Can spermicides cause side effects?
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.
Risks / Benefits
What are the advantages of using a spermicide?
Some of the advantages of using a spermicide are:
- It's inexpensive.
- It's easy to use and apply.
- You can buy a spermicide at most stores and supermarkets.
- It doesn't contain hormones.
- It can double as a lubricant.
- You don't need to visit your healthcare provider before using it.
What are the disadvantages of using a spermicide?
The greatest disadvantages of spermicides are:
- It has to be used correctly and according to the instructions on the label.
- It has to be reapplied each time you have sex.
- It doesn't protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
- It may cause irritation and pain.
- It can increase your risk of getting HIV infection.
- It has been linked to increased urinary tract infections (UTIs).
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.
Recovery and Outlook
Does spermicide protect against sexually transmitted infections?
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.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I see my healthcare provider?
Contact your healthcare provider if you're using a spermicide and experience the following:
- Foul-smelling or oddly colored vaginal discharge.
- Rash or sores on the vagina.
- Painful urination.
- Fever or chills.
- Pelvic or abdominal pain.
- Painful sex.
Do spermicide condoms work?
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.
Where can I buy spermicides?
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).
Can you swallow spermicide?
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.
Is spermicide safe?
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.
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