Gynecologists Break Down 10 Forms of Birth Control—and How They Work

Updated 09/22/17
forms of birth control
Elinor Carucci / Trunk Archive

When it comes to forms of birth control, it’s likely that you’ve only considered a few options in your lifetime: condoms or the pill. “While these are very popular methods, they’re not the only ones out there,” says Jaime Knopman, MD, a fertility specialist at CCRM New York and co-founder of Truly, MD. “They require some willpower and are not right for everyone.” Knopman’s Truly, MD co-founder Sheeva Talebian, MD, (also a fertility specialist at CCRM New York), agrees: “Birth control, like those who use it, comes in many shapes and sizes—and while you may never, ever choose to wear a diaphragm or test out the female condom, it’s important to know what’s out there.”

But what exactly is out there? When talking to the two docs, we learned that the number of forms of birth control available to us stateside is in the double digits (yes, it’s true). And with more options, the likelier a chance there is that you’ll find the right fit. “Unwanted and unplanned pregnancies occur—sometimes even while using contraception,” says Talebian. “But by utilizing a form of birth control that works for you, you can dramatically reduce your chances of that happening.” Below learn about 10 forms of birth control, including the pros, the cons, and everything in-between.

Male Condom

What It Is: A latex sheath that covers a man’s penis and does not require a prescription. It works by acting as a barrier between the egg and sperm so they don’t meet.

Need to Know: It’s inexpensive, it’s available at pretty much any pharmacy, and it requires minimum planning (aka you can keep it in your bag). One major perk is that it safeguards against STDs at the same time. When used correctly, latex condoms are 98% to 99% effective at protecting you from HIV.

The Doctors Say: “Remember, they must be used consistently, applied correctly, and don’t forget that they can break.”

Female Condom

What It Is: A soft, plastic pouch that you insert into the vagina (it does not require a fitting). It works the same way the male condom does by blocking the sperm from reaching your eggs.

Need to Know: It’s not unfair to say that the female condom can be cumbersome to insert and difficult to find (unlike their male counterparts above). The good news is that you can put it in place before things got hot and heavy, and you don’t have to take it out until a few hours after sex.

The Doctors Say: “You are in the driver’s seat with this method.” Go for this one if you like being in control.

The Oral Contraceptive Pill

What It Is: The oral contraceptive pill, aka “The Pill,” is a daily prescription that works to stop you from ovulating. “It shuts down hormonal signals from the brain that stimulate ovulation,” Knopman says.

Need to Know: There are two types: One relies on a combination of estrogen and progesterone, while the other is made up of only progesterone. Along with protection against pregnancy, women who take the pill can also benefit from a lower risk of ovarian and uterine cancer, a decrease in acne and unwanted hair growth, as well as shorter/lighter periods and fewer cramps.

The Doctors Say: “Remember, it’s not highly effective when not taken correctly, and it does not protect against STDs.”

Hormonal Patch

What It Is: A thin, plastic patch that adheres to the skin on the arm, upper body, or top of the buttocks (it’s best to stick to the same spot each time). The patch contains both estrogen and progestin. “Hormones from the patch are absorbed through the skin, circulate in the bloodstream, and shut down the signaling pathways from the brain to the ovary—inhibiting ovulation,” Knopman says.

Need to Know: This method requires a prescription, and although you don’t need to do anything daily, the patches still have to be changed once a week. It does happen to be one good option for those who hate swallowing pills.

The Doctors Say: “It’s less effective for women who weigh more than 195 pounds and is not recommended for those with sensitive skin or dermatologic conditions.”

Hormonal Ring

What It Is: A small ring you insert into your vagina once a month (after the third week, you remove it so you can get your period). Like the patch, the ring gives off both estrogen and progestin (hormones found in the pill) that stop your ovulation.

Need to Know: It can be placed in the comfort of your own home, and there’s no need to be sized. The hormonal ring still offers all the benefits of the pill like decreased cancer risk, shorter/lighter periods, and less menstrual cramping (major perk).

The Doctors Say: “Some cons include higher rates of vaginitis and vaginal wetness, and some women actually report feeling it.”

IUD

What It Is: A tiny piece of flexible plastic shaped like a T that the doctor will insert into your uterus (some are effective for up to a decade). There are both hormonal and nonhormonal IUDs (the nonhormonal acts as a barrier to implantation, while the hormonal also tell your body to stop ovulating). 

Need to Know: The nonhormonal IOD (Copper T) is a great option for women who need to avoid estrogen. All IODs, however, need to be placed by a medical professional, and can sometimes be misplaced or broken in the process. 

The Doctors Say: “It’s the most effective form of reversible contraception. Once it’s properly placed in the uterus, it’s pretty much smooth sailing for five to 10 years.”

Depo-Provera Shot

What It Is: A shot of the hormone progestin that’s given every three months by a medical professional. It eliminates your monthly period, stops you from producing eggs, and also turns your cervical mucus thicker to prevent sperm from coming through.

Need to Know: This form of birth control is also recommended for women who can’t take estrogen and is believed to reduce your risk for migraines.

The Doctors Say: “Once you stop taking it, it can take many months for your menses to return.”

Implantable Devices

What It Is: A small, thin rod that’s inserted by a healthcare professional under the skin of your upper arm. It can last up to three years, and it will either lessen your period or completely eliminate it for the time being.

Need to Know: Like the Depo shot, it relies on progestin to prevent ovulation and stop sperm from getting to an egg.

The Doctors Say: “It often causes irregular bleeding and can cause discomfort or pain at the site of the implant.”

Diaphragm/Cervical Cap

What It Is: Diaphragms and cervical caps are silicone cups that are inserted into the vagina before sex (the cervical cap is smaller). Both should be used with spermicidal cream or gel.

Need to Know: Both provide contraception without delivering hormones, so you can use them while breastfeeding. Women say that they and their partners cannot feel these forms of birth control.

The Doctors Say: “They’re not as effective as hormonal contraception. They also require a fitting and can be difficult for some women to place or insert.”

Rhythm Method

What It Is: A natural method of being in sync with your body and your ovulation in order to know when to avoid intercourse (aka when you’re producing eggs).

Need to Know: You really need to be aware of your body, and it’s not the most effective way of preventing pregnancy. Also, this requires a committed partner since there are several days in the month when intercourse is completely off the table.

The Doctors Say: “Caution: Healthy sperm can live in the pelvis upward of a week, so to be highly effective, intercourse without barrier contraception should be avoided for the seven days preceding ovulation and two days post.”

What do you think about the pros and cons of these forms of birth control? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.

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