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The vast majority of OTC birth control options are nonhormonal. This means that they don’t rely on synthetic estrogen or progestin to prevent pregnancy.
Instead, these methods typically act as physical barriers to prevent sperm from entering the vagina to fertilize an egg.
Opill, the first OTC oral contraceptive in the United States, will soon be the exception to the rule. The progestin-based pill is expected to hit the shelves sometime in 2024.
Most drugstores and grocery stores offer OTC birth control options in-store or online. This includes Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart, to name a few common locations.
The Office on Women’s Health in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports
“Typical use” refers to overall effectiveness during incorrect and correct use. Because it’s unlikely you’ll use OTC birth control perfectly every time, typical use is more accurate.
Opill is a non-estrogen birth control pill. It contains norgestrel, which is similar to progesterone. Like other birth control pills, Opill must be taken at roughly the same time every day to be effective.
Out-of-pocket costs, parameters for insurance coverage, and other benchmarks for accessibility have not been announced at the time of publication.
According to Opill’s manufacturer, the medication will be available to the public in 2024.
External or ‘male’ condoms
When used correctly, most external condoms help prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Lambskin and other natural condoms don’t provide STI protection.
External condoms are 82% effective at preventing pregnancy with typical use. In other words, 18 out of every 100 people who rely solely on external condoms as contraception become pregnant.
Internal or ‘female’ condoms
An internal condom is a lubricated pouch designed to prevent sperm from entering the vagina. They can be inserted into the vagina up to 8 hours before penetrative vaginal sex and help protect against STIs.
Internal condoms are 79% effective at preventing pregnancy with typical use, making them slightly less effective than external condoms.
There are several types of spermicide available. Your options usually include:
Most spermicides contain nonoxynol-9, a chemical that essentially stops sperm in their tracks. This means that the substance prevents sperm from reaching an unfertilized egg.
Spermicide may be used alone or with other types of birth control, such as condoms and diaphragms.
Spermicide alone is 72% effective at preventing pregnancy with typical use. It can be inserted into the vagina up to 60 minutes (1 hour) before penetrative vaginal sex and must be left in place for 6–8 hours afterward.
Nonoxynol-9 doesn’t prevent the spread of STIs. In fact, this substance may actually increase the risk of STIs, such as HIV, in some people.
Spermicide can cause irritation and inflammation in the vaginal canal, which can make it easier for infection to get through. If spermicide is used multiple times per day, your risk for infection may increase even more.
Vaginal sponge with spermicide
The sponge is about two inches in diameter, made of soft foam, and contains nonoxynol-9 spermicide.
It helps prevent pregnancy in two ways. The sponge itself is a barrier that prevents sperm from traveling through the cervix, and spermicide prevents sperm from moving beyond the sponge.
With typical use, the sponge is 88% effective at preventing pregnancy among people who have never had a vaginal delivery. That number drops to 76% among people who have had a vaginal delivery.
Before you use the sponge, you must wet it with water and squeeze it to activate the spermicide. You then insert it into the vagina, where it can remain for up to 24 hours. This is true regardless of how many times you have penetrative vaginal sex.
If you leave the sponge in for 30 or more hours, you’re at an increased risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS). This is a serious and potentially life threatening bacterial infection.
When using OTC birth control, keep these tips in mind:
- Follow product instructions carefully: Not using a product as instructed may increase your risk of pregnancy.
- Using a combination of condoms and spermicide is the most effective OTC birth control: Using condoms or spermicide alone isn’t as reliable, and you run a higher risk of pregnancy.
- Avoid oil-based lubricants such as massage oil, baby oil, or petroleum jelly: These may cause holes in the condom or cause it to break. Instead, stick to water-based lubricants.
- Store barrier methods correctly: Minimize heat and friction, always check the expiration date, and avoid using your teeth or another sharp object to open an individually wrapped barrier.
According to Planned Parenthood, Plan B and other levonorgestrel-based EC are pills 75–89% effective at preventing pregnancy when taken within 72 hours (3 days) of sex.
These pills can be taken up to 120 hours (5 days) after sex. However, effectiveness decreases over time.
Plan B and other levonorgestrel-based EC may be less effective if you weigh more than 165 pounds.
No OTC birth control is perfect. Condoms can break on occasion, sponges may be removed too soon, and any other number of things may happen to disrupt protection.
If this happens, what you do next can mean the difference between an unintended pregnancy and effective prevention.
If your OTC birth control fails, it’s important that you remain calm. Carefully remove the condom or barrier, if used, and urinate to help get rid of any sperm left behind.
OTC emergency contraception pills must be taken as soon as possible to be effective. You can also schedule an emergency appointment with your doctor to have an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted.
Whether you choose an OTC barrier method or prescription birth control is a decision best made by you and your healthcare professional.
To help narrow your options, you may find it helpful to consider:
- whether you want to become pregnant in the near future
- how frequently you have sex that could result in pregnancy
- any underlying conditions that could be impacted
- insurance coverage or out-of-pocket costs
- your overall risk of STI transmission
When it comes to birth control, OTC options have come a long way. Most OTC birth control options are readily available, relatively inexpensive, and effective when used as directed.
Consult a doctor or other healthcare professional if you have any questions or concerns about birth control.