Spermicide: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

    Dr. Leah Millheiser, MD Headshot
    Medically reviewed by Leah Millheiser, MD Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 9/18/2019

    Taking ownership over your preferred contraception is empowering and, to some, makes the experience of sex more enjoyable. But choosing the right one shouldn’t be done in a rush — there are many contraception options available and not all of them may be right for you. 

    Spermicides, or products designed to kill or limit sperm vitality, have existed for ages. The ancient Egyptians used a concoction of wool, dates, honey and acacia placed in the vagina to prevent pregnancy. 

    Modern day spermicides can be messy, but certainly not like wool and honey. 

    Now you can find a variety of creams, foams and suppository spermicides on drugstore shelves. But before you grab that inexpensive box, read on for the details to make an informed decision. 

    TL;DR What You Need to Know 

    • Spermicides are non-prescription contraceptives that come in foams, gels, films, tablets and suppositories. 
    • Spermicides are not very effective — about 28 percent of women may get pregnant in the first year of use. 
    • They can also increase your risks of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. 
    • Spermicides should be used with a back-up form of barrier contraception, such as a condom. 
    • They are designed to be placed deep within the vagina (i.e., on or near the cervix) before sexual activity.
    • If you have sex more than once, apply fresh spermicide before each sexual encounter
    • Spermicide effectiveness lasts only about one hour, so add more product if you’re going to have sex beyond this window.
    • For maximum effectiveness, allow the spermicide to remain in the vagina for at least six hours after sex 

    What Is Spermicide? 

    Spermicide is a type of birth control that prevents sperm from reaching an egg. While the name implies it actually kills sperm, that’s not true; it merely slows the sperm way down in addition to blocking its entrance to the cervix. Picture it as the La Brea Tar Pits, where the sperm gets stuck, struggles and eventually resigns itself to the fact it won’t complete its mission successfully. 

    Spermicide is available without a prescription and comes in foams, gels, creams, suppositories, films and tablets — all designed to be placed within the vagina before sexual activity. 

    How Effective Is Spermicide? 

    Not very. Using spermicide is more effective than using no birth control at all, but it’s one of the least effective forms of contraception. With typical use, it’s estimated 28 percent of women relying on it may get pregnant in the first year of use. 

    Given the limited effectiveness in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (see below), spermicides should be used with a back-up form of protection. Generally, spermicides are used with female barrier methods like diaphragms and cervical caps, but they are also safe to use with condoms. 

    Does Spermicide Prevent the Transmission of STIs? 

    Spermicide does not protect you against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Back in the 1970s and '80s, it was believed it did. Lab tests suggested it could stop gonorrhea, chlamydia and other STIs, according to the World Health Organization. But trying to recreate those studies in humans was unsuccessful. 

    As a matter of fact, some research indicates spermicide can actually increase your risks of contracting STIs, including HIV.  It’s believed the ingredient nonoxynol-9 damages the lining of the vagina, making it susceptible to infection. If you use spermicides frequently, this damage and risk of infection is potentially higher. 

    How Do I Use Spermicide? 

    Because spermicide comes in several forms, it’s important you read the package directions for specific instructions. However, in general, you insert the product deep within your vagina, on or near the cervix, using your finger or an applicator provided with the product. With suppositories, tablets and films, you’ll need to allow more time for the active ingredients to dissolve — generally 10 to 15 minutes. 

    Once inserted, spermicide is only effective for about one hour, so if you’re going for a marathon night, you’ll need to add more. 

    How Long Does Spermicide Last? 

    Most spermicides lose effectiveness after one hour. But, according to the Mayo Clinic, it’s important the product remains in your vagina for at least six hours after sex. After the six hours pass, there’s no reason to douche or otherwise clean the spermicide out — the vagina is a self-cleaning organ. 

    Where Can I Buy Spermicide?

    Spermicides are widely available; one of the few perks of this form of birth control. You can find them in drugstores, grocery stores and online. Look next to the condoms, and if you choose to purchase a spermicide, get a box of condoms as well — remember, this is one of the least effective forms of birth control, and it doesn’t protect against the transmission of STIs. 

    This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.