Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/18/2020
If you’re sexually active and want to avoid unplanned pregnancy, it’s essential that you use a safe, reliable form of birth control.
Although many forms of birth control still require a prescription, several options are available over the counter from your local drugstore, supermarket or online.
Below, we’ve listed the birth control methods that are available over the counter. We’ve also explained how effective each option is, as well as what you should do if you’d prefer to use a form of birth control that requires a prescription.
Both male and female condoms are available over the counter from drugstores, convenience stores, supermarkets and elsewhere.
Condoms are a form of barrier-based birth control. They work by blocking sperm from getting into your vagina during sex. By physically preventing sperm from coming into contact with an egg, condoms help to prevent pregnancy.
When used perfectly, condoms are generally effective. Male condoms are 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy when used perfectly. In real-life conditions, with the occasional error, they’re about 85 percent effective.
Female condoms, or internal condoms, are slightly less effective. Used perfectly, they’re about 95 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. In real-life conditions, female condoms are about 79 percent effective.
Condoms offer a few unique advantages as a form of birth control. Since they create a physical barrier between you and your partner’s genitals, they provide some protection against sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, gonorrhea and chlamydia.
It’s also possible to use condoms at the same time as another form of birth control, such as the pill or patch, to provide an extra level of protection against pregnancy. Using condoms with other forms of contraceptive is also a great way to prevent pregnancy and get the added benefit of STD prevention. However, don’t use two condoms at a time.
Finally, condoms are readily available and inexpensive, especially male condoms. You can find condoms at virtually every major drugstore and supermarket, with most available for well under a dollar each when purchased in a pack of 10 or more.
Condoms also have some disadvantages. Since they need to be placed on your partner’s erect penis, you’ll need to stop to apply a condom before you have sex. Condoms are also much less effective when used improperly, making it important that you learn how to apply one properly.
The birth control sponge, or contraceptive sponge, is a small, foam sponge that contains a type of spermicide called nonoxynol-9. It fits inside your vagina and covers your cervix, blocking your partner’s sperm from entering your uterus and fertilizing an egg.
Because it contains spermicide, the birth control sponge also immobilizes or kills sperm as they come near, further reducing your risk of becoming pregnant.
The effectiveness of the birth control sponge varies depending on whether or not you’ve given birth before. For women who’ve never given birth, the sponge is 91 percent effective when it’s used perfectly and 88 percent effective in real-life conditions.
For women who’ve given birth, the sponge is 80 percent effective when used perfectly and 76 percent effective in real-life conditions.
Like condoms, the sponge has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that you don’t need to apply it during sex. It’s safe to insert the sponge up to 24 hours before you have sexual intercourse, meaning you can apply it ahead of time without any issues.
You can also have sex multiple times within 24 hours when you use the sponge, without having to change the sponge each time you have sex. Since the sponge doesn’t contain hormones, it can be a good option if you’re sensitive to estrogen or progestins.
One disadvantage of the sponge is that you’ll need to fit it correctly in order for it to be effective at preventing pregnancy. Using the sponge isn’t too complicated, although the process can be more difficult than applying a condom.
After you insert the sponge, it’s safe to use it for up to 30 hours at a time. It’s important that you remove the sponge before 30 hours are up, as leaving the sponge in too long can lead to toxic shock syndrome.
Unlike condoms, the sponge doesn’t create any physical barrier between you and your partner’s genitals, meaning it won’t provide any protection against STDs.
Finally, some people may experience side effects from the sponge. If you or your partner notice irritation or pain after using the sponge (a potential side effect of the Nonoxynol-9 spermicide), it may be better to choose a different form of birth control.
Spermicide is a type of foam, cream, gel or film that you put inside your vagina before you have penetrative sex. It contains chemicals (typically nonoxynol-9) that destroy or paralyze sperm to prevent them from coming into contact with and fertilizing an egg.
You can use spermicide on its own as a form of birth control. However, it’s much more effective when it’s used in combination with another form of birth control, such as condoms or the pill.
Without any other form of contraception, spermicide is 82 percent effective when used perfectly and about 72 percent effective in real-life conditions.
If your normal method of contraception fails, or if you have unprotected sex, you can purchase the levonorgestrel morning-after pill (usually sold as Plan B One-Step® or Take Action®) from most drugstores and pharmacies without any need for a prescription.
This type of morning-after pill is 75 to 89 percent effective at preventing pregnancy when used within 72 hours of the time you had unprotected sex.
The levonorgestrel morning-after pill isn’t designed as an everyday form of contraception, and it shouldn’t be used as a replacement for condoms, the birth control sponge or hormonal methods of birth control.
However, in an emergency, it is available, allowing you to reduce your risk of pregnancy in the event that you have unprotected sex.
It’s also worth noting if that you weight more than 155 pounds, these types of morning after pill may be less effective. If that’s the case, it’s worth considering another form of contraception, like the copper IUD.
Currently, the birth control pill (commonly referred to as simply “the pill”) isn’t available over the counter in the United States. Other forms of hormonal birth control, such the patch and vaginal ring, also aren’t sold over the counter in drugstores and supermarkets.
In order to purchase and use hormonal birth control, you’ll need to have a prescription from a healthcare provider.
Luckily, getting a prescription for hormonal birth control isn’t complicated. Most of the time, it’s as simple as scheduling a visit with your healthcare provider and enquiring about whether the pill is a safe and effective contraceptive option for you.
You can also get a birth control pill prescription online. We offer 10 different birth control pills, including progestin-only pills, complete with discreet, convenient home delivery.
To receive a prescription, you’ll need to consult with a healthcare provider online. If approved, you’ll be able to receive your birth control pills every month, meaning you won’t need to talk to a local healthcare provider or visit the drugstore.
The birth control pill is safe for most women. However, if you’re older than 35, actively smoke, use medication that may interact with birth control pills or suffer from certain health conditions, your healthcare provider may recommend using a different form of birth control.
There are several forms of over-the-counter birth control, including male and female condoms, spermicide and the birth control sponge. You can purchase these from most supermarkets and drugstores without any need for a prescription.
Used correctly, these forms of birth control can be quite effective. However, they become less effective when they’re used incorrectly, potentially increasing your risk of pregnancy.
Although it isn’t available over the counter, getting the birth control pill isn’t difficult. Depending on your location, you can either talk to your healthcare provider or receive a prescription for the pill online using a telehealth service.
Whether you’re about to start using birth control for the first time or considering changing from one method to another, it’s important to understand the options that are available to lower your risk of pregnancy.
Our guide to birth control goes into more detail about the birth control options that are available today, from over-the-counter options such as condoms to the pill, patch, ring, implant, IUD and more.