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Barrier methods

Contraceptive sponge

This barrier method is a soft, disk-shaped device with a loop for taking it out. It is made out of polyurethane (pah-lee-YUR-uh-thayn) foam and contains the spermicide (SPUR-muh-syd) nonoxynol-9. Spermicide kills sperm.

Before having sex, you wet the sponge and place it, loop side down, inside your vagina to cover the cervix. The sponge is effective for more than one act of intercourse for up to 24 hours. It needs to be left in for at least 6 hours after having sex to prevent pregnancy. It must then be taken out within 30 hours after it is inserted.

Only one kind of contraceptive sponge is sold in the United States. It is called the Today Sponge. Women who are sensitive to the spermicide nonoxynol-9 should not use the sponge.

Diaphragm, cervical cap, and cervical shield

These barrier methods block the sperm from entering the cervix (the opening to your womb) and reaching the egg.

  • The diaphragm is a shallow latex cup.
  • The cervical cap is a thimble-shaped latex cup. It often is called by its brand name, FemCap.
  • The cervical shield is a silicone cup that has a one-way valve that creates suction and helps it fit against the cervix. It often is called by its brand name, Lea's Shield.

The diaphragm and cervical cap come in different sizes, and you need a doctor to "fit" you for one. The cervical shield comes in one size, and you will not need a fitting.

Before having sex, add spermicide (to block or kill sperm) to the devices. Then place them inside your vagina to cover your cervix. You can buy spermicide gel or foam at a drug store.

All three of these barrier methods must be left in place for 6 to 8 hours after having sex to prevent pregnancy. The diaphragm should be taken out within 24 hours. The cap and shield should be taken out within 48 hours.

Female condom

This condom is worn by the woman inside her vagina. It keeps sperm from getting into her body. It is made of thin, flexible, manmade rubber and is packaged with a lubricant. It can be inserted up to 8 hours before having sex.  Use a new condom each time you have intercourse. And don't use it and a male condom at the same time.

Male condom

Male condoms are a thin sheath placed over an erect penis to keep sperm from entering a woman's body. Condoms can be made of latex, polyurethane, or "natural/lambskin". The natural kind do not protect against STIs. Condoms work best when used with a vaginal spermicide, which kills the sperm. And you need to use a new condom with each sex act.

Condoms are either:

  • Lubricated, which can make sexual intercourse more comfortable
  • Non-lubricated, which can also be used for oral sex. It is best to add lubrication to non-lubricated condoms if you use them for vaginal or anal sex. You can use a water-based lubricant, such as K-Y jelly. You can buy them at the drug store. Oil-based lubricants like massage oils, baby oil, lotions, or petroleum jelly will weaken the condom, causing it to tear or break.

The male latex condom is the only birth control method proven to help protect you from STIs, including HIV. Research is being done to find out how effective the female condom is at preventing STIs and HIV. For more information, see Will birth control pills protect me from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS?

Keep condoms in a cool, dry place. If you keep them in a hot place (like a wallet or glove compartment), the latex breaks down. Then the condom can tear or break.

Office on Women's Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, womenshealth.gov (or girlshealth.gov)



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