Drug stores carry an array of spermicides for birth control: foams, creams, gels, and vaginal contraceptive film (VCF). Whatever the method, these products all work to kill the sperm before they can fertilize an egg — thus preventing unintended pregnancy. Spermicides do a great job of supplementing other birth control methods, but are not considered reliable contraceptives in and of themselves.

How spermicides work

Most foams, creams, and gels come with applicators to place them inside the vagina. You use each product a little differently, but in general you should put it in place at least ten minutes before intercourse (though this process can be integrated into foreplay). You must reapply the product each time you intend to repeat sexual intercourse.

Spermicide also can come as a vaginal contraceptive film (VCF), a 2-x-2-inch paper-thin sheet that contains nonoxynol-9 (a chemical that kills sperm). You place it on or near the cervix, where it dissolves in seconds, releasing the spermicide.

Advantages of spermicides

These products are easy to buy and easy to use. They don’t require a prescription, and apart from possible temporary allergic reactions to the chemicals of which they are made — which may affect the woman, the man, or both — they have relatively few side effects.

The spermicides in these products do offer some protection against HIV and other STDs (but don’t rely solely on these products to remain disease free).

Disadvantages of spermicides

Spermicides are relatively ineffective when used by themselves. Of 100 women who use a contraceptive foam, cream, jelly, or suppository, 21 will become pregnant during the first year of typical use, although if perfectly used, that number drops to 3. VCF is similar: when used perfectly only 6 percent of women become pregnant. Under normal use, however, the number jumps to 25 percent.

All spermicides are much more effective when used in conjunction with either a diaphragm, cervical cap, or condom.

If you use these products several times a day, they can cause irritation that can actually make catching AIDS easier.

Another drawback of these products is that they’re messy although new technology is being developed all the time. At least one new brand of gel claims to avoid leaking and does not require later removal.

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