The 6 Types of Spermicide

A spermicide is an over-the-counter form of birth control that prevents pregnancy by blocking the entrance to the cervix so sperm can’t get to an egg. It also kills the sperm itself.

Spermicide comes in several forms and is placed deep into the vagina shortly before sex; the active ingredient in spermicide is called nonoxynol-9. When used alone, spermicide is only around 72% effective in preventing pregnancy. It does not prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs). To boost protection from pregnancy, it is best to use spermicide in combination with a diaphragm, condom, or cervical cap. Using a condom also prevents STIs.

Here are the six types of spermicides currently on the market and how to use them.

The 6 Types of Spermicide
Verywell / Jessica Olah

Spermicidal Foam

Contraceptive foam comes in an aerosol can, with an applicator, and is the same consistency of mousse hair-styling products. After shaking the can for at least 30 seconds, press the tip of the applicator on the nozzle of the can and press down. This fills the applicator with foam. While lying down, a woman should insert the applicator into the vagina a few inches and push the plunger to squirt out the foam. The foam is active immediately, so it should be inserted within 30 minutes of having sex. Two applications may be better than one. The applicator may be washed with soap and water, stored in a clean, dry place and used again.

Contraceptive Film

Vaginal contraceptive film (VCF) is a 2-by-2-inch thin sheet of film (similar to wax paper). To insert, fold it in half, then in half again, and place it on the tip of your index finger. The film should be inserted into the vagina and be placed on or near the cervix. A spermicidal film will melt into a thick gel consistency by absorbing vaginal secretions, so it will act as a barrier to immobilize sperm. VCF must be inserted at least 15 minutes before intercourse for it to completely dissolve and work effectively. A new piece of a contraceptive film should be used each time you have sex, as a single application is good for up to only one hour after being inserted.

Spermicidal Jelly

Contraceptive jelly is another form of concentrated spermicide. Jellies come in tubes and are usually used with a diaphragm or cervical cap. The spermicidal jelly is squeezed into its applicator, which is then inserted into your vagina. Another dose of spermicidal jelly should be inserted if sex lasts longer than an hour or if you have sex again. When used with a diaphragm, protection lasts for up to six hours. Unlike spermicidal foams, films, and inserts, jelly can also provide lubrication.

Contraceptive Inserts, Tablets, or Suppositories

These methods are solid forms of concentrated spermicide that melt into a foam. Inserts or suppositories are about half an inch long and less than a quarter inch wide. The suppository needs to be inserted in the vagina (and as close to the cervix as possible). A woman must then wait 10 to 15 minutes to allow the insert to dissolve into a foamy substance. Suppositories may be somewhat less effective than foam, cream, or gel because it is hard to know if they have fully dissolved. A new insert should be used each time you have sex. There are also foaming contraceptive tablets, which work the same way as inserts. Some women report a warm sensation in the vagina as these spermicidal tablets melt into a foam.

Spermicidal Creams and Gels

Creams and gels are used the same way as spermicidal jelly while also providing lubrication. Contraceptive creams and gels come in different textures and tend to be less likely to drip or leak than other forms of spermicide. Twist the applicator onto the end of the tube of spermicide and fill the applicator with the cream or gel. Then, twist off the applicator and insert it into the vagina (close to the cervix) and press the plunger to release the substance. Gels and creams are most effective when used right before sex and should not be inserted more than 30 minutes before having sex. (Advantage 24 is a spermicide gel that steadily releases nonoxynol-9, providing 24-hour protection with one dose.)

Contraceptive Sponge

The contraceptive sponge is a soft, round barrier device that is about 2 inches in diameter. It is made of solid polyurethane foam and has a nylon loop attached to the bottom for removal. The sponge must first be moistened with water and then inserted into the vagina before intercourse. It covers the cervix and also releases spermicide.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a spermicide?

    A spermicide is a substance inserted into the vagina before sex that prevents pregnancy by killing sperm before they can fertilize an egg. Spermicides are usually paired with a barrier contraceptive such as a condom, diaphragm, contraceptive sponge, or cervical cap.

  • Can spermicides alone prevent pregnancy?

    They can, but, on their own, spermicides are not the most reliable form of birth control. According to a 2013 Cochrane review, when used alone, spermicides were only 78% to 86% effective in preventing pregnancy over a six-month period.

  • What chemicals are used in spermicides?

    By far the most common active ingredient of spermicides is nonoxynol-9. In May 2020, the FDA approved a new spermicidal gel called Phexxi made with lactic acid, citric acid, and potassium bitartrate.

  • What types of spermicide are there?

    Spermicides come in many different forms. Some are inserted directly into the vagina (such as spermicidal foams, creams, gels, films, or suppositories) and others are infused in contraceptive sponges or pre-lubricated condoms.

  • Can spermicides cause side effects?

    Nonoxynol-9, the most common spermicide, can cause vaginal inflammation and irritation. The overuse of nonoxynol-9 can damage the delicate tissues of the vagina and actually increase the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

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Article Sources
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  2. Grimes DA, Lopez LM, Raymond EG, Halpern V, Nanda K, Schultz KF. Spermicides used alone for contraception. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Sep 30;(9):CD005218. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005218.pub3

  3. Evofem Biosciences. Package insert - Phexxi (lactic acid, citric acid, and potassium bitartrate) vaginal gel. Updated May 2020.

  4. Planned Parenthood. What are the disadvantages of using spermicide? Updated 2021.