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What is a spermicide?

A spermicide is a chemical used for birth control. It contains chemicals that kill sperm. Spermicides come in different forms, such as foam, gel, cream, film, suppository, and tablet. They can be bought at a drug store.

Spermicide is inserted into a woman's vagina before sex. It destroys the sperm in a man's semen before the sperm reach the uterus. Spermicides are not very good when used alone to prevent pregnancy. They work better when they are used with another form of birth control, such as a diaphragm or condom.

How is it used?

  • Make sure you read the label on the spermicide package carefully for any special directions or precautions. Some forms of spermicide may be effective for just a short time. Some may take a certain amount of time to dissolve. Consider these differences when you are choosing and using a spermicide.
  • Put the spermicide in your vagina no more than 1 hour before sex.
  • Use the applicator provided with the spermicide to insert the spermicide high in the vagina around the cervix. (The cervix is the opening of the uterus. It feels like the tip of your nose and is high up in the vagina.) The spermicide should cover the cervix. If you use a film, suppository or tablet, you must wait 15 minutes before having sex so the spermicide can dissolve. Follow the package directions.
  • If the spermicide has been in the vagina more than an hour before sex, put in more spermicide. Spermicides work only if you put more in BEFORE each time the man ejaculates ("comes"). This is very important.
  • If you are using a spermicide with a diaphragm, check the package to make sure you are buying a product made for this use.
  • If you are using a spermicide with a diaphragm, leave the diaphragm in for 6 to 8 hours after intercourse before removing it.
  • Douching may make the spermicide not work as well. If you feel you need to douche, wait at least 6 to 8 hours after you have had sex. Remember that douching is not a way to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

What are the benefits?

The benefits of spermicides are:

  • When used with another barrier method of birth control, such as a diaphragm, spermicides are 71 to 82% effective in preventing pregnancy.
  • No healthcare provider visits or prescriptions are needed.
  • They are widely available in drug and grocery stores.
  • They are relatively inexpensive, and they are convenient to carry and use.
  • They help lubricate the vagina (creams especially).

What are the disadvantages?

The disadvantages of spermicides include:

  • They are not as effective in preventing pregnancy as some other forms of birth control. This is especially true if they are used without any other form of birth control during intercourse.
  • The sperm-destroying chemicals stop working after a fairly short time. This means that if you are going to have sex, you cannot wait longer than 30 minutes after the spermicide is inserted into the vagina.
  • In rare cases, allergic reaction to the chemicals causes a feeling of burning, itching, or redness.
  • Spermicides do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases. A latex or polyurethane condom is the best protection against sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
  • Some spermicides have an ingredient called nonoxynol-9 (N-9). This chemical can irritate the skin around the vagina, penis, or rectum. Irritation from frequent use of spermicides with N-9 may increase your risk of getting HIV/AIDS if your partner is infected. If you have sex more than once a day or have anal sex, it is probably better not to use spermicides. Use a new condom each time you have sex plus a backup birth control method in case the condom breaks.
Developed by David W. Kaplan, MD and Phyllis G. Cooper, RN, MN.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-01-28
Last reviewed: 2008-02-25
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
2010 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All Rights Reserved.
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