Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/01/2020
The debate between the birth control pill vs. condoms is highly contentious. Today, we’re going to explore the facts.
Thanks to its high effectiveness rate and convenience, the birth control pill is one of the most popular forms of contraception available.
Thinking of starting the pill? If you’ve recently started a relationship, decided you want to make sure you’re more protected from pregnancy or just want the extra security the pill offers, you’ve probably wondered how the pill compares to condoms.
As two very different forms of contraception, the birth control pill and condoms both have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. They also have several complementary benefits, making them a good combination when used together.
Below, we’ve compared the birth control pill and condoms to help you understand how each form of birth control can fit into your life. We’ve also listed the unique advantages, disadvantages and side effects of each form of contraception to help you make the right decision for your needs.
The birth control pill protects you from becoming pregnant by releasing specific hormones into your body.
If you use a combined birth control pill, you’ll be protected from pregnancy via a combination of estrogen and a progestin hormone. Together, these hormones stop you from ovulating, meaning your body won’t release any eggs while you’re taking the pill.
This makes it more difficult for sperm to come into contact with an egg, reducing your risk of becoming pregnant. The progestins in combined birth control pills also thickens the mucus near your cervix, making it more difficult for sperm to enter into your uterus and cause pregnancy.
If you use a progestin-only pill, you might not stop ovulating. However, the progestin hormones will still make it much more difficult for sperm to come into contact with an egg by affecting your cervical mucus levels.
Our guide to the differences between combined and progestin-only pills explains how the two types of birth control pill differ, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
In short, the pill protects you from pregnancy by changing the way your body behaves, instead of by creating any kind of external, physical barrier to block sperm.
Used right, the pill is extremely effective. If you use the birth control pill following the instructions exactly, it will be 99 percent effective at stopping you from becoming pregnant every year. If you use it under “real life” circumstances, with the occasional missed pill, it will be 91 percent to 92 percent effective.
The pill is easy to use and extremely convenient, making it a good option if you want a form of birth control that won’t interfere in your life very much.
Using the pill is simple. If you take your pill at the same time every day, you’ll be protected from pregnancy after about seven days. From this point on, all you need to do is continue taking your pill at the same time daily to remain protected.
Your birth control pills will come with a cycle calendar inside the packaging, making it easy for you to keep track of which pill to track on which day.
Beyond the convenience factor, birth control pills have several other benefits. If you get painful, uncomfortable periods, you might notice your period getting lighter and less uncomfortable after you start taking the pill.
The birth control pill can also shorten your period, making it a good option if you typically get a long, inconvenient period that affects your day-to-day life.
Combined birth control pills can also help to treat acne. Our guide to birth control pills and acne goes into more detail on how birth control pills can improve your skin, as well as the best pills for getting rid of acne breakouts.
Finally, the birth control pill can improve some aspects of your general health. Birth control pills are linked to reductions in your risk of developing some cysts, ovarian and endometrial cancers and certain vaginal infections.
Long-term use of the birth control pill can also improve your bone strength, potentially reducing your risk of developing osteoporosis later in life.
While the pill is a safe, effective and convenient form of birth control, it’s not completely free of downsides.
Like other forms of hormonal birth control, birth control pill side effects do exist. Most of the birth control pill side effects are mild, ranging from nausea to headaches, breast tenderness, spotting in between periods and a small amount of fluid retention.
Our guide to the side effects of the birth control pill goes into more detail on these side effects, as well as how likely you are to experience them.
As well as these minor birth control pill side effects, the pill is linked to a slight increase in your risk of experiencing cardiovascular issues such as stroke and blood clotting. These risks are higher if you smoke and are 35 years of age or older.
Our guide to smoking and birth control covers these risks in more detail, with information on the best birth control options if you’re a smoker.
The birth control pill could potentially weaken or strengthen your sex drive. This isn’t a common side effect. Most women who use birth control don’t notice any change in their interest in sexual activity, whether positive or negative.
Beyond the potential health side effects of the birth control pill, the pill also has a few other small disadvantages.
First, you’ll need to take it at the same time every day in order for it to be fully effective. This is especially important if you use the progestin-only pill, which needs to be taken at almost exactly the same time to stay 99 percent effective as a form of contraception.
Second, since the pill doesn’t create any physical barrier between you and your partner, it won’t protect you from STDs. For safe sex, you’ll either need to take an STD test with your partner or use condoms in addition to the pill.
Cheap, simple and easy to use, condoms work by physically preventing your partner’s semen from entering your vagina.
Condoms are a form of barrier contraception, meaning they work by creating a physical barrier between your partner’s penis and your vagina. This means that they also — at least partially — protect you and your partner from STDs by blocking the transfer of bodily fluids.
But how effective are condoms? Like the birth control pill, condoms are highly effective when used correctly. If you use condoms perfectly every time you have sex, they will be 98 percent effective at preventing you from becoming pregnant.
However, just like the pill, it’s very common to make mistakes when using condoms. Because of this, the “real life” effectiveness rate of condoms is about 85 percent per year.
Because you might not be the one putting the condom on, it’s important to make sure that your partner uses the condom correctly before you start having sex.
Condoms have a range of advantages over other forms of birth control, from their low cost to their ability to prevent the spread of most STDs.
The biggest advantage of condoms is their ability to stop you or your partner from transmitting STDs. Because condoms create a physical barrier between you and your partner, bodily fluids that can carry STDs are prevented from coming into contact with your genitals.
Condoms can help to prevent the spread of most STDs, including HIV. However, some STDs that spread through skin-to-skin contact can be transmitted even if you wear a condom. This means condoms might not fully protect you from STDs such as herpes, HPV and syphilis.
However, overall, condoms offer far more protection against STDs than hormonal forms of birth control, which offer no STD protection at all.
Another advantage of condoms is their cost and availability. Condoms are affordable and readily available from your local drug store, convenience store or supermarket, making them very easy to buy on short notice.
This means that if you want to have sex but don’t have a prescription for birth control, a condom is a cheap, convenient way to keep yourself protected.
Finally, condoms are completely free of side effects, making them a good birth control option if you experience side effects from hormonal birth control. Condoms are also a good option if you can’t use the pill due to your age, cigarette use or other risk factors for cardiovascular issues.
The biggest disadvantage of condoms is the lack of convenience. While hormonal forms of birth control such as the pill let you have sex without having to stop and prepare, you’ll need to take a break from foreplay to let your partner put the condom on before you start having sex.
To stay protected, you’ll need to use a condom every time you have sex. This means that you or your partner will need to have a condom available whenever you feel like having sex, which can be a minor inconvenience. Luckily, condoms are small, discrete and easy to carry with you.
For extra convenience, it’s best to keep a supply of condoms in you or your partner’s bedroom, within easy reach of the bed.
Another disadvantage of condoms is the effects they can have on sex. Some people find it hard to put a condom on, meaning you might need to take a break for a minute or two as your partner puts the condom on their penis.
Women and men both report a reduced level of pleasure from sex when using a condom. This is often due to incorrect condom sizing and can often be fixed by switching to a different size, type or brand of condom.
There are countless different condoms on the market that range in thickness, material and size, meaning it can take some time and experimentation before you and your partner find the brand of condoms that’s best suited to your needs.
Condoms can also take time to get used to, meaning it might feel awkward the first time you and your partner use a condom, but become natural and pleasurable over time.
Finally, condoms are easy to misuse. If your partner doesn’t wear the condom correctly, or the condom comes loose during sex, your risk of becoming pregnant is significantly higher than if the condom was used correctly.
The birth control pill and condoms are two very different forms of contraception. One works by affecting your body’s biology to prevent pregnancy, while the other works by preventing semen from entering your vagina in the first place.
From an effectiveness standpoint, the pill is slightly more effective at preventing pregnancy than condoms. It also has additional health benefits, such as its ability to treat and prevent acne and some health conditions, that aren’t provided by condoms.
However, condoms provide extra protection against most STDs, making them a more effective option if your aim is to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections.
From an overall protection standpoint, the best option is to use the birth control pill and condoms whenever you have sex. Using condoms and the pill at the same time further lowers your risk of becoming pregnant, all while protecting you from most STDs.
Are you considering using the pill? From preventing pregnancy to helping you treat and prevent acne, the birth control pill has a range of benefits.
Our guide to birth control and acne explains how you can use the birth control pill to reduce your hormonal acne breakouts. You can also learn about the potential side effects of birth control pills in our guide to common and uncommon birth control side effects.