Spermicide is a chemical that destroys sperm and reduces the chance of pregnancy. It is a contraceptive substance that a person can insert inside their vagina. There are different spermicide options, including creams, gels, and films. People can use them alone or in combination with other barrier birth control methods, such as condoms.

This article explores what spermicide is in more detail and the different types a person can use. It also explores some frequently asked questions and alternative products.

This article talks about perfect and typical use of birth control. Perfect use describes how effective a form of birth control is if everyone uses it exactly as instructed every time they have sex. Typical use describes how effective a form of birth control is if a person sometimes uses it as instructed but may also use it irregularly or imperfectly.

Even with perfect use, contraception is not 100% effective. People should discuss birth control options with a healthcare professional to find the right option for them.

Spermicide is a type of barrier contraception that prevents sperm from reaching an egg. Most spermicides contain the chemical nonoxynol-9, which damages sperm. Typically, an individual inserts spermicide in their vagina, where it forms a barrier that slows and kills sperm, preventing it from entering the uterus. It is available without a prescription and comes in different forms, such as creams, foams, gels, films, and suppositories.

Evidence suggests that when people spermicide alone, it is among the least effective types of birth control. Therefore, many experts recommend using other forms of barrier methods, such as condoms or diaphragms, in addition to spermicides. For example, when people use them together correctly, the pregnancy rate for spermicide and condoms is less than 1%.

It is also advisable that individuals use spermicides and condoms together because spermicides alone do not provide any protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Spermicide comes in several forms with different characteristics. Some include the below.

Films

A spermicidal or vaginal contraceptive film consists of a thin sheet of film that an individual folds in quarters and in half again before inserting into the vagina.

It acts as a barrier that absorbs vaginal secretions and melts into a thick gel. People should insert the film at least 15 minutes before engaging in sexual intercourse.

Foams

Contraceptive foams come in aerosol cans with an applicator. People need to shake the can first then fill the applicator with the spermicide. They then insert it into the vagina and push the plunger to release the foam.

Foams are immediately active, and individuals should insert them less than 1 hour prior to sexual intercourse.

Suppositories

These are solid forms of concentrated spermicide that melt into a foam after insertion inside the vagina. People should use a new insert every time they engage in sexual intercourse.

Those who use spermicidal suppositories should wait 10–15 minutes before having sex to allow the product to melt.

Sponges

Contraceptive sponges, or birth control sponges, are small round sponges that a person inserts inside their vagina before engaging in sexual activity. They cover the cervix so that sperm cannot reach the eggs.

A person should wet the sponge with clean water before use. It starts working immediately after insertion. A person can insert it inside their vagina up to 24 hours before having sex and remove it up to 6 hours after.

It comes with a loop so that it is easy to take out.

Jellies

Spermicidal jellies come in tubes, and people usually use them with a diaphragm or cervical cap.

To use, a person squeezes the jelly into the applicator and then inserts it inside their vagina. The jelly starts working within 10-15 minutes.

After use, people should clean the applicator and allow it to dry before using it again.

Gels

Spermicide gels also come with an applicator. People fill the applicator with gel and insert it inside their vagina, close to their cervix.

A person should insert the gel 10–15 minutes before having sex, and it will be effective for an hour.

The table below compares the six spermicide options detailed in the section above:

FilmsFoamsSuppositoriesSpongesJelliesGels
When to use15 minutes before sexless than 1 hour before sex15 minutes before sexup to 24 hours before sex10–15 minutes before sex10–15 minutes before sex
Effectivenessup to 3 hoursup to 1 hourup to 1 hourup to 24 hoursup to 6 hoursup to 1 hour
Used with condomsyesyesyesyesyes, or with diaphragms or cervical capsyes

Before using a spermicide, people should check the expiry date and carefully read any instructions regarding how to use it, when to use it, and how long it is effective. Generally, individuals should attempt to insert spermicide into the vagina, close to the cervix, roughly 10–15 minutes before sexual intercourse.

The insertion method may vary slightly with different forms of spermicide, but they typically come with an applicator, so people can lie down, squat, or put one foot on a chair and insert it. Most spermicides are only effective for 1 hour after insertion. A person should also reinsert spermicide for each act of penetrative sex.

It is also advisable that people use spermicide together with another barrier form of birth control, such as a condom.

Other reversible products that a person can use to reduce the chance of pregnancy include:

  • Levonorgestrel intrauterine device (IUD): This is a T-shaped device that a doctor places inside the uterus, where it releases the hormone levonorgestrel every day to prevent pregnancy. Evidence suggests that fewer than 1 in 100 people become pregnant with an IUD in place. People can remove it after 3–12 years.
  • Implant: This is a thin rod that a medical professional can insert under the skin of the person’s upper arm. It releases progestin, allowing the cervical mucus to thicken, preventing the egg from leaving the ovary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that fewer than 1 out 100 people become pregnant during the first year of using the implant.
  • Combined oral contraceptives: These are available with a prescription and contain estrogen and progestin. Doctors may recommend that individuals take one pill at the same time every day.
  • External condoms: These are a type of barrier method that a person puts on their erect penis before having sexual intercourse. When used correctly they can protect against STIs. They are available without a prescription and are 98% effective with perfect use.
  • Internal condoms: A person inserts these inside their vagina before engaging in sexual activity, so that semen does not reach the uterus. Internal condoms are 95% effective with perfect use.
  • Birth control patch: People attach this to their lower abdomen, buttocks, or upper body, excluding the breasts. It is available with a prescription and works by releasing progestin and estrogen into the person’s blood. Individuals can leave one patch on for 3 weeks, and remove it for the fourth weeks so that they can menstruate. It is 91% effective with typical use.
  • Birth control shot: Doctors inject progestin hormone into a person’s buttocks or arm every three months. It causes the cervical fluid to thicken, making it difficult for sperm to reach the egg. It is 96% effective with typical use.
  • Cervical caps: People insert cervical caps with spermicide inside their vagina before engaging in sexual intercourse. A person should contact a doctor to discuss fitting before use, as there are different sizes available on the market. According to Planned Parenthood, these are 86% effective for people who have never given birth. However, they are 71% effective for people who have given birth.

Below are answers to some of the most common questions about spermicide.

What are the benefits of using spermicides?

Some benefits of spermicides include the following:

  • They are hormone-free.
  • They are available over the counter.
  • They may provide lubrication.
  • People can stop using them if they want to get pregnant.
  • They are safe for people who are breastfeeding.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, most spermicides are also cheaper than other birth control methods.

Does spermicide protect against STIs?

Spermicides do not offer protection against STIs.

Therefore, it is advisable to use spermicide together with condoms, as this can reduce the risk of spreading STIs.

Are there any side effects?

According to Planned Parenthood, spermicides containing nonoxynol-9 can irritate the genital area if a person uses it several times a day on sensitive skin. In some cases, this damage to the genital area may increase the chance of contracting an STI.

Some people may also have a spermicide allergy.

If irritation occurs, a person should consider switching brands or speak with a doctor to discuss other birth control methods.

A spermicide is a reversible form of birth control that can lower the chance of pregnancy. It is a chemical that inactivates sperm, preventing it from reaching an egg. Spermicides are available in the form of foam, suppository, and film products.

However, spermicide is not the most effective form of contraception and does not offer protection from STIs. Therefore, many experts recommend using spermicide in combination with other birth control methods, such as condoms.