Barrier Methods of Contraception: A Guide

There are a lot of things that set the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) apart from other methods of birth control, but one of these things is that FAM requires you to learn what’s going on with your body each day and work WITH your body’s natural cycles, rather than suppressing them with a hormonal method. Unlike with hormonal birth control, this means that you can’t have unprotected sex every day of the month. Rather, you’ll need to abstain, have alternative forms of sex (such as oral sex), or use protection on days when you’re potentially fertile.

While most couples will opt for the male condom as their preferred method of protection, some people don’t like the waste created by condoms or the way they feel. There are other options, and this post is intended to outline some of the more common ones. However, it should be noted that the male condom is the most effective of all the methods listed below at preventing pregnancy – so you may not want to use any of the other methods unless you’re okay with the increased possibility that you’ll get pregnant. (If you’re really, REALLY not okay with the possibility of getting pregnant, you may want to abstain or have alternative sex during your fertile window).

Male Condom: The most commonly used barrier method on this list. If used correctly, the male condom is 98% effective at preventing pregnancy, and it’s also one of the few methods of birth control that protects you against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Plus, they’re cheap and easy to find at local drug stores or clinics. However, not everyone loves the way they feel, and using them isn’t particularly environmentally friendly. We like Sir Richard’s condoms for their sleek design and awesome social commitment (for every condom you purchase, one condom is donated to a developing country).

Female Condom: Though not as popular as its male counterpart, the female condom works in the same way (by blocking sperm from getting into the vagina). At a 95% effectiveness rate, they’re less effective at preventing pregnancy than male condoms, but like the male condom, they protect you against STIs. In fact, the female condom offers more protection against genital warts and herpes than the male condom, since it covers more of the genital area. But, because they’re not as widely used as the male condom, they’re not as easy to find. Some people like the way they feel better than the male condom, but others hate them – it’s ultimately a matter of personal preference.

Cervical Cap – The cervical cap fits snugly over your cervix to keep sperm from entering, and is used with spermicide to kill sperm in the vagina. The cervical cap must stay in place for at least 6 hours after intercourse. You’ll need to go to the gynecologist to get fitted for a cervical cap. Cervical caps are more environmentally friendly than condoms, and still allow for skin-to-skin contact. Claims on the effectiveness of cervical caps vary, but some studies say the cervical cap is only 86% effective at preventing pregnancy, and the effectiveness is lowered if you’ve already given birth.

Diaphragm – Similar to the cervical cap, the diaphragm is placed over the cervix to prevent sperm from entering, and is used in conjunction with spermicide. The diaphragm also must stay in place for 6 hours after intercourse. The difference between the diaphragm and the cervical cap is that the diaphragm is bigger – about the size of the palm of your hand. Again, you’ll need to go to the gynecologist to get fitted for a diaphragm. The diaphragm itself can cost anywhere from $30-75 (and is good for up to two years), but this doesn’t include the cost of the doctor’s visit. Like cervical caps, diaphragms are a more environmentally-friendly option, and allow for skin-to-skin contact. With perfect use (and with spermicide), the diaphragm is 94% effective at preventing pregnancy.

Sponge – The sponge is a combination of a barrier method (similar to the diaphragm/cervical cap) and spermicide. It’s a spermicide-filled foam sponge that fits over the cervix to kill sperm as it reaches the cervix and block sperm from entering the uterus.  Again, you’ll need to keep the sponge in place for at least 6 hours after intercourse. They run about $3-5 per sponge (each sponge can only be used once) and are available over the counter. Used perfectly, the sponge is only 91% effective at preventing pregnancy – and again, the effectiveness is lowered if you’ve already given birth.

Spermicide – Spermicide works by stopping sperm from moving. Used on its own, however, spermicide isn’t very good at this – it’s only about 85% effective with perfect use, and 71% effective with actual use. Unless you’re totally okay with the possibility of getting pregnant, don’t use spermicide on its own – use it along with a diaphragm, cervical cap, or condom.

Keep in mind that when using protection during your fertile window, the effectiveness of FAM is only as high as the effectiveness of the method you’re using. So make sure you’ve carefully researched your method of choice and are using it exactly as it’s supposed to be used.

Also, if you’re new to charting, we recommend that you use protection throughout the first few cycles, until you’re confident in your ability to use FAM on its own. It’s also a good idea to read Taking Charge of Your Fertility and/or The Garden of Your Fertility, take a class on FAM (if you can find one in your area), and have a certified FAM instructor review your charts before you have unprotected sex. (If you’re interested in having a FAM instructor review your charts via email, email us at and we can set you up with an instructor).

Also, never flush your condoms down the toilet! (or sponges, or whatever method you use). Throw them in the trash. 

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