What is the birth control patch?
The birth control patch is a method of hormonal contraception. It’s a small, square patch that looks like a plastic bandage. It sticks to your skin and gradually releases hormones into your body to prevent pregnancy. You replace it once per week.
The birth control patch was introduced in 2002. It’s highly effective — less than 1 percent of women who use the patch according to its directions get pregnant while they use it.
How does it work?
The birth control patch contains two man-made versions of the hormones estrogen and progestin. These are the same types of hormones found in most birth control pills. Your body absorbs the hormones from the patch. Then, the hormones start preventing pregnancy by blocking your ovaries from releasing eggs. The hormones also thicken your cervical mucus to keep sperm out. The patch usually takes one week after you initially start using it to reach full effect.
How do I use it?
You must have a prescription to use the birth control patch. See your doctor to discuss whether the patch is right for you. You can start using the patch as soon as you get it if you’re sure you’re not pregnant.
The birth control patch is easy to use:
- Open the foil pouch so that it lies flat.
- Decide where you will put the patch. This should be an area of clean, dry skin on your stomach, upper arm, upper back, shoulder, or buttocks.
- Peel the patch off of the foil.
- Peel half of the plastic off the patch. Be careful not to touch the sticky part.
- Stick the patch to your skin, peeling off the rest of the plastic.
- Push the patch against your skin for 10 seconds using the palm of your hand.
- On the same day the following week, remove the patch.
- Dispose of the old patch by folding it in half so that it sticks to itself. Place it in a sealed plastic bag and throw it away.
- Apply a new patch using steps 1–6.
- Do this for three weeks. On the fourth week, take a break from using the patch. Then, start again the following week.
Every few days, it’s also a good idea to check that the patch has not come loose. If you discover that the patch has fallen off, contact your doctor and ask them what to do.
Do’s and don’ts
- Always apply it to clean, dry skin.
- Don’t use lotion, powder, or makeup under or near the patch.
- Don’t apply the patch to your breast.
- Don’t flush the patch down the toilet. This may contaminate the water supply with hormones.
- Plan to use a backup contraceptive method for the first week that you start using the patch to allow enough of the hormones to build up in your system to be effective.
How effective is it?
According to Planned Parenthood, the failure rate is less than 1 percent for women who always use the patch according to the directions. It's about 9 percent for women who don’t always use the patch according to the directions.
To help increase effectiveness, change your patch at the same time on the same day each week. Decide which day and time would be easiest for you before you start using the patch.
What are the risks?
All hormonal birth control has the potential to cause rare but serious side effects, including:
There have been conflicting findings, but recent and larger studies demonstrate no difference in risk among estrogen-containing pills, patches, and rings. The overall risk is low.
However, complications are more common in women who:
- smoke and are older than 35 years
- have diabetes
- have high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels
- have certain inherited blood clotting disorders
If you fall into one of these categories, discuss with your doctor whether hormonal contraception is right for you.
Pros of the patch:
- high rate of effectiveness
- regulation of your menstrual cycle
- shorter, lighter periods with less cramping
- only need to apply it once per week
Cons of the patch:
- skin irritation
- bleeding between periods
- breast tenderness
- nausea or vomiting
- does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases
Talk to your doctor
When used correctly, the patch is effective at preventing most pregnancies. Many women also find it more convenient than taking daily birth control pills. The patch is a type of hormonal contraception, so it comes with risks and benefits. You can weigh these with your doctor to help decide if the patch is right for you. To explore your other options, read about popular types of birth control.