Spermicides are a type of contraceptive that help to stop sperm from getting to an egg. Contraceptive methods are designed to prevent unwanted pregnancy. If used correctly, you can have sex without the worry of getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant.
To help you make an informed decision about using spermicide gel as a form of birth control, Dr Juliet McGrattan offers her expert advice on the pros and cons of chemical contraceptives:
What are spermicides?
Spermicides are chemical contraceptives that are useful additional safeguards when used in conjunction with barrier methods of contraceptives such as diaphragms or caps. They do not give adequate protection against pregnancy if used alone.
How do spermicides work?
Spermicides come in different forms including creams, gels, foams and pessaries. They contain chemicals which damage the cell walls of sperm and alter the pH in the vagina. This makes it hard for sperm to swim and survive and stops them from moving up into the uterus and ultimately reaching an egg to fertilise.
The chemical used in spermicide formulations is nonoxinol-9. This is the only available spermicide on prescription in the UK and it comes as a gel formulation. Other spermicides can be bought over the counter at your pharmacy.
How do I use a spermicide?
Always read the leaflet that comes with the spermicide and follow the instructions carefully. The correct use will depend on the formulation that you have chosen.
Generally, a spermicide gel is used before you have sex. It needs to be inserted deep into the vagina, by using your fingers or an applicator. Most products suggest you wait one hour before you have sex. Remember though that using a spermicide as your only method of contraception is not recommended.
Spermicide gels can also be used alongside a diaphragm or cap. When used together they are 92 to 96 per cent effective at preventing pregnancy. Spermicides should be applied to the upper surface of the diaphragm and around the rim before they are inserted. If using a cap, fill one third of the cap with spermicide before putting it in the vagina. Avoid applying it around the rim because the cap may not stay in place.
If your cap or diaphragm and spermicide are in place but three or more hours have passed and you haven't had sex then you will need to re-apply the spermicide.
After having sex, it is important to keep the diaphragm or cap and spermicide gel in place and untouched for at least six to eight hours. If you have sex again within this time, more spermicide gel should be used. Don't remove the cap or diaphragm to do this, simply insert the spermicide high into the vagina.
How effective is spermicide at preventing pregnancy?
Spermicide contraceptives are not effective enough to prevent a pregnancy if used without additional barrier methods such as diaphragms, caps and condoms. Exceptions may be recommended to women whose fertility is low.
Spermicide contraceptives should only be used in combination with barrier methods such as diaphragms or caps to provide additional protection against the risk of pregnancy.
Spermicidal contraceptives are not generally recommended for use with condoms, as there is no evidence of any additional protection compared with non-spermicidal lubricants.
Do spermicides protect against STIs?
Spermicides do not protect against STIs and spermicide contraceptives are not suitable for people with or at high risk of sexually transmitted infections (including HIV).
Using spermicides regularly can actually increase your risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The active chemical nonoxinol 9, works by disrupting the cell membrane of sperm. Used repeatedly it can damage the membranes of the cells in the wall of the vagina, vulva and penis. This can lead to genital sores which may increase the risk of acquiring and transmitting a STI including HIV.
Where can you get spermicides?
There is limited availability of spermicide contraceptives, as they are no longer recommended. There is only one formulation available in the UK – Gygel which contains nonoxynol 9. You can purchase spermicide gel online or in your local pharmacy without a prescription.
Spermicide contraceptives have the following advantages:
✔️ Spermicides are hormone free.
✔️ Spermicides are available without a prescription.
✔️ Spermicides can be used if you're breastfeeding.
Spermicide contraceptives have the following disadvantages:
✖️ Spermicides do not protect against STI’s.
✖️ Spermicides may affect spontaneity, as it needs to be applied immediately before having sex.
✖️ Spermicides are only effective for a limited time only and has to be reapplied after three hours.
✖️ Spermicides can cause irritation of the vagina and penis, and this can increase the risk of infections.
The chemical nonoxynol-9 used in spermicide gel can cause irritation of the vagina. This irritation can increase the risk of contracting STIs and the HIV virus.
Other rare side-effects associated with spermicides include:
Pain, discomfort or a burning sensation.
Itching or dryness of the vagina or penis.
Redness or rash of the vagina or penis.
Needing to pass urine more often than usual.
Sexual health resources
For further advice and information on choosing the right contraceptive for you, try one of the following:
Ask your GP for advice.
Find a sexual health clinic near you.
Find contraceptive services near you.
Use the FPA my contraceptive tool.
Call the National Sexual Health Line: 0300 123 7123.
Last updated: 20-01-2021
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