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Spermicide is a form of nonhormonal birth control. It’s available over the counter (OTC) at drugstores and pharmacies.

It’s a chemical — often nonoxynol-9 — that’s inserted into the vagina before penis-in-vagina sex.

How does spermicide work?

The root word “cide” means “kill” in Latin, according to Planned Parenthood. It’s a little misleading, as spermicide does not necessarily kill sperm.

Instead, depending on the product, it either blocks the cervix so sperm is unable to reach an egg, or makes it more difficult for sperm to move inside the body. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, this effectively kills it.

Spermicide is fairly straightforward to use. Inserting many products feels similar to putting a tampon in, and some come with an applicator for easier insertion.

For others, you can simply use your fingers to apply the spermicide.

Timing is the most important part of using a spermicide product. The window changes from product to product, so it’s best to carefully read the directions before use.

Some products take around 15 minutes to become fully effective, and many only remain effective for around 1 hour after insertion.

Spermicide doesn’t just come in one form. Creams, gels, films, and even condoms coated with the chemical exist.

But it’s one of the less effective birth control methods when used by itself. A 2011 study found that with typical use, around 28 out of 100 people who use it as their sole contraceptive method becoming pregnant each year.

To further lower the chance of becoming pregnant, you can use other barrier contraceptives with spermicide products, like:

  • condoms
  • cervical caps
  • diaphragms

Spermicide also doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so using condoms alongside can help lower the risk.

Here are the various types of spermicide that are available:

Spermicidal condoms

Condoms coated with spermicide can make pregnancy prevention more effective and help protect against STIs in one go.

With perfect use — correctly, on time, without error, and with no breaks or tears — spermicide condoms are around 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy.

But this can fall to as low as 70 percent with typical use. Typical use more accurately reflects how the average person uses contraception. This might include, for example, forgetting to use a condom until after pre-cum or ejaculate has already entered the vagina.

Contraceptive films

When inserted into the vagina, these thin sheets start to dissolve and form a thick gel after mixing with vaginal fluids.

Vaginal films typically need to be placed at least 15 minutes before penetrative vaginal sex to allow time for them to dissolve.

How long they’re effective for varies by brand.

One popular brand, VCF, claims to be up to 94 percent effective when used correctly.

Spermicidal jellies

Often used with diaphragms or cervical caps, jelly acts as a lubricant.

It also gives an extra layer of protection if sperm manage to bypass the barrier of a diaphragm or cervical cap.

Spermicidal jelly needs to be inserted as close to the cervix as possible. An applicator is usually included to help.

It works immediately and tends to last for around 1 hour, minimum — sometimes longer.

Contraceptive gel

An alternative lubricant option, this gel is inserted in a similar way to the jelly.

You place the applicator as near to the cervix as possible and push the gel out via the plunger.

Contraceptive gel is also effective straight away, but typically only lasts up to 1 hour.

Effectiveness rates can vary by brand, but VCF claims their gel is up to 94 percent effective when you use it correctly.

Spermicide suppositories

Shaped like a bullet, these solid suppositories are placed into the vagina, where they dissolve into foam.

It takes 10 to 15 minutes for full effectiveness. They tend to only remain effective for 1 hour after insertion.

Contraceptive sponge

Made from soft foam with added spermicide, contraceptive sponges are inserted into the vagina.

They’re effective immediately and provide longer-lasting protection of up to 24 hours.

Often, you’ll be advised to wait at least 6 hours after intercourse before removing the sponge.

Each sponge can only be used once. Planned Parenthood says they’re about 91 to 80 percent effective with perfect use, and 88 to 76 percent effective with typical use.

There are many factors to consider when choosing the right spermicide product for your needs. We selected the following based on:

  • scientific research
  • clinician recommendations
  • customer experience and reviews
  • ease of use
  • comfort
  • cost

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $10 per pack
  • $$ = $10–$15 per pack
  • $$$ = over $15 per pack

Best widely-accessible spermicide

Trojan Ultra Thin Spermicidal Lubricant Condoms

  • Price: $
  • Pack size: 12 condoms
  • Where to get it: OTC or online at Amazon, CVS, Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and other local pharmacies

Made from premium quality latex with nonoxynol-9 (7 percent) spermicide, these condoms help lower the risk of pregnancy and STIs.

They’re ultra thin for more sensitivity and aren’t suitable for repeated vaginal sex in one day or for anal sex.

Best bulk-buy spermicide

Trojan ENZ Armor Spermicidal Lubricant Condoms

  • Price: $$$
  • Pack size: 36 condoms
  • Where to get it: OTC or online at Amazon, CVS, Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and other local pharmacies

Trojan classic condoms have a secure fit and the same coating of nonoxynol-9 spermicide for pregnancy prevention and a lower risk of STIs.

They also feature premium quality latex and a smooth lubricant for increased comfort.

Avoid using these if you’re having anal sex or vaginal sex more than once per day.

Best spermicide for an enhanced experience

Trojan Ultra Ribbed Spermicidal Lubricant Condoms

  • Price: $
  • Pack size: 12 condoms
  • Where to get it: OTC or online at Amazon and Walmart

Although they have an identical spermicidal coating to the previous condoms, these ones have deep ribs for increased stimulation.

Again, they aren’t suitable for anal sex or if you’re having vaginal sex more than once per day.

Best portable spermicide product

VCF Vaginal Contraceptive Film

  • Price: $
  • Pack size: 9 films
  • Where to get it: OTC or online at CVS, Rite Aid, Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and others

Containing nonoxynol-9 spermicide, these films are effective for up to 3 hours after being placed.

Each film comes in an individually sealed pouch that’s easy to transport. Once inserted and fully dissolved, it shouldn’t be noticeable by either person.

If you have insurance, contraceptive films may be free. However, you may need a prescription to have the cost covered.

Best spermicide for use with condoms

ForPlay PrePair Spermicidal Water-Based Personal Lubricant

  • Price: $
  • Pack size: 15 milliliters
  • Where to get it: online at Walmart

This Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved spermicidal lubricant is not a contraceptive, but is instead recommended for use with condoms or diaphragms.

It contains nonoxynol-9 (1 percent) and is water-based, so it offers a more natural feel and can be quickly washed off with water, too.

Best spermicide for easy application

VCF Vaginal Contraceptive Gel

  • Price: $$
  • Pack size: 10 applicators
  • Where to get it: OTC or online at CVS, Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and others

Each applicator is prefilled with contraceptive gel for easier insertion.

Plus, the gel works straight away and remains effective for around 1 hour after application.

The cost may be covered by insurance. But, if you’re using insurance, a prescription may be required.

Best spermicide on a budget

Encare Vaginal Contraceptive Inserts

  • Price: $
  • Pack size: 12 inserts
  • Where to get it: online at Walmart

Each individually wrapped suppository contains 100 milligrams of the nonoxynol-9 spermicide and dissolves when inserted.

It should be inserted 10 minutes before P-in-V sex and offers protection for up to 1 hour.

Best spermicide for longer-term protection

Today Sponge

  • Price: $$
  • Pack size: 3 sponges
  • Where to get it: OTC at pharmacies and supermarkets as well as online at Amazon and Walmart

These contraceptive sponges also contain 1,000 milligrams of nonoxynol-9. They each provide 24-hour protection when inserted.

Contraceptive sponges may be covered by insurance with a prescription. They can also be found for a lower cost or for free at family planning clinics and Planned Parenthood centers.

Spermicide is safe for most people. It may be a convenient option for those who know in advance when they’re going to have P-in-V sex, and want additional protection against pregnancy on top of barrier methods like condoms.

But there’s still a risk of side effects,particularly skin irritation.

The risk of irritation is higher if you use spermicide multiple times per day. And irritation in genital areas can make it easier for STIs, including HIV, to enter the body.

Signs of irritation or an allergic reaction include:

  • a burning sensation when urinating
  • feelings of itchiness or soreness
  • redness
  • unusual discharge

If you notice any of these signs, it’s best to discontinue use.

If you can, speak with a health professional. They may recommend trying a different brand or advise alternative forms of contraception altogether.

If spermicide doesn’t seem like the right contraceptive method for you, there are plenty of other options to prevent pregnancy.

These include both hormonal and nonhormonal forms such as:

More permanent forms include vasectomy (male sterilization) and tubal ligation (female sterilization).

Alternatively, a vaginal gel is now available that is similar to spermicide but does not contain the same potentially irritating ingredient.

Phexxi is only available on prescription and works by lowering vaginal pH to make it hard for sperm to move. Planned Parenthood says it’s around 93 percent effective with perfect use, and 86 percent effective with typical use.

Phexxi is used just before intercourse and works immediately. Pregnancy prevention benefits will last for 1 hour after use.

What are the benefits of spermicide?

While spermicide isn’t right for everyone and isn’t the most effective contraceptive, it does have a number of benefits.

It contains no hormones, so it tends to have fewer side effects than other forms of birth control.

It’s also available OTC, so it doesn’t require a trip to the doctor’s office.

Finally, the method is reversible and often less costly than other forms of contraception.

How effective is spermicide?

Spermicide is around 82 percent effective when used perfectly, according to Planned Parenthood.

But in reality, typical use means about 28 out of 100 people will become pregnant each year when using spermicide as their only contraceptive method.

How long does spermicide work for?

It all depends on the product.

Some products need to be applied at least 15 minutes before P-in-V sex and others are effective straight away.

How long they work for differs, too. Many are only effective for 1 hour after insertion. But some can last for several hours.

Make sure you read the product label before use.

Does spermicide protect against STIs?

No, spermicide offers no protection against STIs. Additional protection, such as condoms, will be needed.

Spermicide can actually increase the risk of transmitting STIs due to the potential for skin irritation.

Are there any spermicide side effects?

Spermicide use may lead to allergic reactions and skin irritation.

Side effects are more common in people who use spermicide multiple times per day.

Spermicide is an easier-to-use contraceptive that relies on a chemical to block sperm. It comes in a variety of forms but is one of the least effective types of modern birth control.

It also offers no protection against STIs and may cause irritation in some people. However, you can buy spermicide OTC, making it accessible and cost effective for many.

If you have any questions about your contraceptive options, consult with a healthcare professional.


Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.