A cream, foam, film, soft tablet, or gel that kills sperm cells or inactivates them so they can’t move around.
This article is part of our Contraception Series!
What we're covering
What side-effects could I get?
What happens to my fertility if I stop?
Note: the information below was sourced from references (1-5), unless stated otherwise.
What is it?
A cream, foam, film, soft tablet, or gel that kills sperm cells or inactivates them so they can’t move around. It’s not a very effective contraception on its own, but can be used in
combination with a condom, diaphragm, or cervical cap.
How does it work?
Spermicides damage the cell membrane of sperm cells, which kills them or prevents them from moving around. You apply spermicide to another method you’re using, such as a diaphragm, or insert it high inside the vagina itself (as if you’re inserting a tampon). A spermicide only works maximally for about an hour, so you need to reapply if you’re having sex for longer than that.
Also make sure to check the expiration date listed on the packaging before use! Don’t use expired spermicides, because they may be less effective.
How effective is it?
On its own, a spermicide is not very effective. With perfect use, it’s 82% effective, meaning 18 people* out of 100 will become pregnant within a year. With typical use, effectivity decreases to 72% (28 people* out of 100 will become pregnant within a year).
What are possible side-effects?
Spermicides can cause irritation of the vaginal wall. They can also increase the risk of transmission of HIV. If you or your partner have a risk of HIV, use a condom instead.
When can't I use it?
If you have an allergy to any of the ingredients in the spermicide. You also can’t use spermicide in combination with lubrication, because it disturbs the spermicide. Lastly, you shouldn’t use spermicides if you have HIV or have a high risk to catch HIV.
Does it work immediately?
This depends on the kind of spermicide you get. Some kinds work immediately, and these mostly come as a gel or foam. Other kinds take a while to start working, for example varieties that come as a film. Carefully read the box of your spermicide to see if you have to wait after application, before you can start having sex.
What happens to my fertility if I stop using it?
Since nothing in your body changes using this method, nothing’s different when you stop using this method. You have a higher risk of pregnancy if you’re having unprotected sex compared to when you’re using contraception.
Does it protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?
No. In fact, spermicides can increase your risk for STDs, especially HIV, because they can irritate and damage the lining of the vagina. This makes it easier for germs to get in. If there’s a risk of STD transmission, use a condom.
*People, here, means anyone who is able to become pregnant, including girls, women, and non-binary people and transgender men who still have their uterus, vagina, and ovaries.
Are you curious about other methods to protect yourself from an unwanted pregnancy? Read about other birth control options here!
This article is pending medical review.
Written by Juliëtte Gossens
Reviewed by Sophie Oppelt and Selina Voßen
Edited by Juliëtte Gossens
McFarlane I (ed.). Seeing the unseen: The case for action in the neglected crisis of unintended pregnancy. United Nations Population Fund. 2022. Available from: https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/EN_SWP22%20report_0.pdf
Hacker NF, Gambone JC, Hobel CJ (eds.). Hacker & Moore’s Essentials of Obstetrics & Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 2016.
Hoffman BL, Schorge JO, Halvorson LM, Hamid CA, Corton MM, Schaffer JI (eds.). William’s Gynecology. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education; 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The United States Medical Eligibility Criteria for Contraceptive Use, 2016 (US MEC). Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/mmwr/mec/summary.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2016 U.S. Selected Practice Recommendations for Contraceptive Use (U.S. SPR). Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/mmwr/spr/summary.html
Please note: the information we provide to you here is for educational purposes only. If you’re experiencing any discomfort or have any complaints or questions about your health, please contact your doctor or other relevant health professional. We don’t provide medical advice.