We all know that sex is better when you’re not worried about unwanted pregnancy, and finding a contraceptive you trust will allow you to relax and have a fulfilling intimate relationship. As women, our birth control options have increased exponentially in the last 50 years, but more choices can make it harder to choose the right one for you. The most important step is talking to your gynecologist since most birth control is prescription only and you need to know how it will affect your health. However, it’s good to narrow down the choices before your go, so check out our guide to the most common types of birth control and who they’re most suitable for.
Condoms come in two forms: male and female. The male condom is a sheath of latex, polyurethane or natural materials that is worn over the man’s penis during sex. The female condom is a wider sheath of polyurethane that is placed inside the vagina before sex and removed afterwards. Latex and polyurethane condoms are the only birth control that doubles as protection against sexually transmitted infections, so if you’re not in a monogamous relationship or are worried about transmission, they are an absolute must. Natural material condoms do NOT protect from STIs.
Lasts: one-time use
Who they’re for: Everyone! Especially women who don’t want to use hormonal methods and don’t have latex allergies. Most drugstores carry them and they don’t require a doctor’s visit – so why not keep a few on-hand just in case? They’re also a great backup method if you doubt your main method for any reason (like forgetting to take your pill) and a smart choice if you’re worried about STIs.
This shallow, flexible silicone cup is placed inside your vagina over your cervix along with spermicide, and must be left in for 6 to 8 hours after sex. Your doctor will help you find the right “fit” and check the diaphragm for holes to ensure protection.
Lasts: up to 2 years with proper care
Who it’s for: Women who can’t use hormonal birth control and dislike or can’t use condoms. You should also be at a stable weight, as changes in weight can affect the fit and efficacy of the cup.
To prevent pregnancy, hormone contraceptives stop the ovaries from releasing eggs, without an egg there is nothing for sperm to fertilize and no pregnancy. It also makes cervical mucus thicker, which can block sperm from reaching the egg.
These prescription pills containing hormones must be taken every day. Combination (estrogen and progestin) pills are also sometimes prescribed to regulate hormones and treat everything from irregular periods and acne to PMS symptoms. Progestin-only pills must be taken at the same time every day to be effective. If you miss your pill by more than 3 hours you’ll need to use a back-up method – like condoms.
Lasts: one day (depending on when you start the pill, you may have to wait 7 days for full protection).
Who it’s for: Women who can remember to take their pills every day (and at the same time for progestin pills) and who want added benefit of regulating their period. Estrogen can cause high blood pressure, blood clots, and increase the occurrence of stroke in smokers, so if you have any of these risks your doctor might prescribe a progestin-only pill. Unlike estrogen, progestin does not affect milk production so it’s also safe to use while breastfeeding.
The patch is a thin strip of plastic – like a bandaid – that contains estrogen and progestin. You place it on the skin of your abdomen, buttocks, or upper body once per week for 3 weeks – the 4thweek you don’t wear one.
Lasts: 1 week
Who it’s for: Women who have trouble remembering or don’t want to take a pill each day. Just be aware that it provides 60% more estrogen than combination pills, so women who smoke or have a high risk of blood clots, stroke or migraines shouldn’t use it.
This is a two-inch flexible ring containing a combination of estrogen and progestin that is inserted into the vagina for 3 weeks and removed for the 4th. Don’t worry, the ring won’t interfere with sex, neither you nor your partner should notice it during intercourse.
Lasts: 1 month
Who it’s for: If you only want to think about your birth control once per month, the ring definitely makes life a bit easier. It has the same risks as other estrogen containing methods, so be sure to discuss it with your doctor.
The shot is a progestin-only injection, given by your doctor once every 3 months. Though it does mean regular doctor visits, it’s one of the most effective forms of hormonal birth control and gives you 12 weeks of protection.
Lasts: 12 weeks
Who it’s for: If you want longer-term protection, and don’t mind a periodic jab with a needle, the shot might be for you. Women who cannot take estrogen or are breastfeeding can also use it.
The implant is a piece of plastic about the size of matchstick, containing progestin that is inserted under the skin of your inner arm.
Lasts: 3 years.
Who it’s for: Women who can’t use estrogen hormones and don’t want children for a few years. There is limited efficacy for overweight women, so be sure to discuss all health issues with your doctor.
*Women on the shot and implant often stop having their periods while using them, but normal menstruation returns after stopping.
Intra-Uterine Device (IUD)
An IUDs is a “T” shaped piece of plastic inserted into your uterus by your doctor. IUDs have 2 options: the hormonal IUD releases a small amount of progestin hormones while the copper IUD uses a small amount of (completely safe) copper.
Lasts: 5 years (progestin) or 12 years (copper)
Who it’s for: Women who know they don’t want children for several years. Just be aware that IUDs can cause increased cramping within the first year of use, especially the copper one. So if you’re already clutching your ibuprofen and heating pad during your period you might want to pass on the IUD for now.
Tubal ligation (having your tubes tied) and tubal implantation are some of the most common methods for permanent sterilization of women. A doctor surgically closes or implants devices to block the fallopian tubes so a woman’s eggs can’t reach the uterus to be fertilized.
Who it’s for: Women who are absolutely sure they don’t want more children and want to avoid hormones. This permanent contraception is extremely effective and very difficult to reverse.
This method is about paying attention to your body and requires no medical intervention. It includes charting your menstrual cycle, monitoring the texture of your cervical mucus, and basal temperature to record your most and least fertile times, and plan your intimate moments around them. However, it’s less effective than the other methods on this list – with typical use 24 out of 100 women practicing fertility awareness become pregnant each year. You don’t always ovulate on the same day of your cycle, making errors more likely, so many women use a barrier method like condoms when close to their ovulation days, just in case.
Who it’s for: Women looking for a more natural method without hormones and are willing to take the risk of falling pregnant. If you’re tracking your periods you already have a head start, and if not, there are a number of fertility tracking smart phone apps out there to put you on the right track.
This list should give you a foundation of knowledge to help you narrow down your options and begin the birth control conversation with your gynecologist. It seems like a lot to sift through, but knowing what your needs are and what each method offers makes the process much simpler and gives you confidence in your choice.