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Barrier methods are about more than just condoms, friends.

A barrier method is any type of birth control that puts, well, a barrier between the penis and vagina to block sperm from reaching an egg. No sperm to egg contact = no pregnancy.

But that’s not all! Some methods also do double duty, acting as barriers between skin and fluids to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

We give you the lowdown on your options, how effective they are, and how you can get busy with barrier methods.

Barrier methods refer to any contraceptive or prop that blocks what you want to block from where you want to block it during sexual activity. Their main function is to prevent pregnancy by physically blocking sperm from the uterus during penis-in-vagina (P-in-V) sex.

Some (Hello, condoms!) also block contact with another person’s skin and fluids during other types of sex to prevent STIs.

External condoms are thin pouches that are worn over the penis during intercourse. They’re designed to catch fluid (precum and semen) that comes out of the penis, so it doesn’t make its way into the vagina.

When done, you can carefully pull it off and toss it in the trash.

They come in latex and non-latex options, like plastic (polyurethane, nitrile, and polyisoprene — oh my!) and lambskin. In other words, there are plenty of options for those with a latex allergy.

With typical use, external condoms are 87 percent effective at preventing pregnancy.

Bonus: Latex and plastic condoms can protect against STIs. You can pick them up for free at most clinics or buy them online or in stores. Woot!

Also called the female condom, internal condoms are polyurethane pouches that are worn inside the vagina.

With typical use, they’re 79 percent effective as birth control. Like their external counterpart, internal condoms also reduce the risk of STIs.

You can buy them online or in stores without a prescription, and you can occasionally get them for free at clinics.

A cervical cap is a reusable rubber cap that you insert into the vagina to prevent sperm from getting inside the uterus.

You need to use it with spermicide (more on that in a sec) for maximum effectiveness, which is 71 to 88 percent effective with typical use. It also needs to stay in the vagina for at least 6 hours after sex to prevent pregnancy.

Cervical caps are reusable for up to a year with proper care. You can get one at a pharmacy or health center with a prescription.

Like a cervical cap, a diaphragm is a reusable form of birth control that’s worn inside the vagina to keep sperm out of the uterus and prevent pregnancy. You need to use it with spermicide for the best protection, which is 71 to 88 percent with typical use.

You need a prescription from a healthcare professional to get one from a pharmacy or health center.

Like the cap, a diaphragm also needs to be worn for at least 6 hours after sex.

The contraceptive sponge is a small, squishy, and round piece of, well, sponge that contains spermicide and is inserted into the vagina.

They work by creating a barrier between the cervix and sperm. The spermicide slows down sperm.

Sponges are 73 to 86 percent effective with typical use. You can buy sponges over the counter (OTC) online or in the family planning aisle.

FYI, sponges are currently unavailable for the foreseeable future, according to the manufacturer’s website.

Chemical barrier methods are basically spermicides, which come in several forms and are used inside the vagina to stop sperm before it can make its way into the uterus.

Your options are:

  • foam
  • cream
  • gel
  • film
  • suppository
  • tablet

How you insert them depends on the type of spermicide you choose. Suppositories, tablets, and film can be inserted into the vagina using a finger or two. Cream, gel, and foam are inserted using an applicator that you fill.

Most types are inserted using a special applicator or squeezed onto a cervical cap or diaphragm before insertion.

On their own, spermicides are 79 percent effective with typical use. You can use them in addition to condoms, too.

You can buy spermicides OTC, online, and in stores where you buy condoms.

Not sure if barrier methods are the way to go over other types of birth control? Let’s break down the pros and cons to help you decide.

The pros:

  • You can use them as needed — unlike, say, an IUD that’s in for the long haul.
  • Most barriers are available without a prescription.
  • Those that require a prescription (talkin’ to you, cap and ‘phragm) are reusable.
  • You can often get condoms and spermicides for free at a clinic.
  • Barriers are non-hormonal and can be used by everyone.
  • They’re safe to use while breastfeeding.
  • They don’t impact pre-existing medical conditions, like high blood pressure.
  • They’re less expensive than hormonal birth control methods.
  • If you have sex, condoms offer the best protection against STIs during P-in-V sex, anal sex, and oral sex.

The cons:

  • You have to remember to use them every time you have sex.
  • Spermicides can be messy.
  • Some people feel like condoms interfere with sensation and ruin the mood.
  • Some people are allergic to spermicides, which rules out diaphragms, cervical caps, and certain condoms.
  • They’re effective, but not as effective as non-barrier methods.

As long as you remember to have them on hand — and use them! — every time you plan to have sex, barrier methods are effective and affordable birth control.

Not sure if they’re your jam? You don’t need to figure it out on your own. A healthcare professional can help.


Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.