You might be looking into non-hormonal birth control for several reasons. Maybe it's a medical reason, concern over side effects, or a desire to leave the body's natural hormone levels alone.
Regardless of the reason, we're here to help you find the right non-hormonal birth control option for you—one that is safe and effective in preventing pregnancy. As you might suspect, there are more than a few different methods.
What is non-hormonal birth control?
Non-hormonal birth control is any contraceptive method that prevents pregnancy without affecting the body's natural hormones. Many women and people who menstruate choose not to use hormonal birth control due to their medical history, side effects, or personal preference.
What are the different types of non-hormonal birth control?
There are many different types of non-hormonal birth control methods, including barrier methods, long-term and permanent solutions, and natural forms of non-hormonal birth control.
Barrier methods provide a physical barrier between the sperm and the egg. Some barrier methods prevent unplanned pregnancy by killing sperm or making the vagina an inhospitable environment for sperm. Examples include:
Permanent non-hormonal birth control methods include a vasectomy or sterilization surgery (trans-abdominfal surgical sterilization).
Natural non-hormonal birth control methods may include the withdrawal method, natural family planning (aka fertility awareness or the rhythm method), non-penetrative intercourse, and abstinence.
How do I choose a non-hormonal birth control method?
Do you know what percent of couples who don't use any form of birth control get pregnant within one year? The answer is 85%. If you're reading this article, then you'd probably want to bring that number way down by using contraception. When you're talking about non-hormonal contraception, there are a few methods that are better than others.
Now, when we ask what about the "best" non-hormonal birth control option to mean the most effective one, then the copper intrauterine device (IUD) wins every time, hands down. (Well, technically , the number one way to prevent pregnancy is not to have sex. But that's not why we're here.) Out of 100 women and people who menstruate who use the copper IUD (ParaGard™), less than 1 will get pregnant in the first year. This means your chances of getting pregnant are close to 0% (the exact number from the CDC is 0.8%) if you have the copper IUD.
Editor's Note: The top method of non-hormonal birth control for everyone may not mean it's the best fit for you as an individual. You have to choose what's most effective, is something you're comfortable with using, and fits with your health history.
The best option for you when it comes to birth control without hormones is the one you can use confidently and correctly every single time you have sex. The Office on Women's Health says that the best type of birth control for you depends on:
The top 4 non-hormonal birth control options
We'll go into this more in detail later, but here's a quick list of the top 4 non-hormonal contraceptive methods, when ranked by effectiveness rate for the typical user in the first year (source: FDA birth control chart):
We based the list below on the effectiveness of the method for the average person. Your individual "top" method could be based on multiple factors, like cost (e.g., if you don't have insurance), the convenience of using it, how comfortable you are with it, or how easily you can access the method.
What is "Typical use"
We need to clarify that when we talk about the effectiveness or how often someone could get pregnant if they use a particular method, we give the numbers in terms of "typical use" and "perfect use." Essentially, "typical use" is how someone in a real-world situation would use the method. For example, if you're on the pill and forget to take it sometimes, that's "typical use." If you use the pill consistently and correctly every single time, that's "perfect use."
Researchers came up with the numbers above after following women and people who menstruate for a year who said they were using these methods. However, the people surveyed may have said they used a condom every single time (or another method), but the reality could be different. The "typical use" numbers include people who might have forgotten a few times (because who's perfect?). When you look at perfect use of the male condom, then less than 2 people out of 100 may get pregnant in the first year.
What about effectiveness compared with the pill?
Keep in mind that except for the copper IUD, the above methods aren't as effective as hormonal birth control. Hormonal methods like the pill, patch, or ring contain the hormones progestin and estrogen, which primarily help prevent ovulation (releasing an egg). And it's hard for sperm to fertilize an egg when there isn't one there to begin with! Hence, the success rate of hormonal birth control: When using the pill, patch, or ring, about 9 out of 100 women may get pregnant in the first year with typical use; with perfect use, less than 1 out of 100 women may get pregnant in the first year.
1: Copper IUD
The copper IUD is available by prescription only from your health care provider. The brand name is called ParaGard.
Effectiveness: Less than 1 out of 100 women may get pregnant in the first year of use. The copper IUD is over 99% effective.
What is it: The copper IUD (intrauterine device) is a T-shaped plastic device wrapped in copper, a little less than 1.5 inches wide and long. It's something your doctor would insert inside the uterus in a non-surgical procedure taking less than a few minutes.
How it works: The copper IUD works by releasing copper ions that are toxic to sperm. Its T-shape also blocks sperm and keeps them from reaching the egg.
How long does it last: The copper IUD can keep you from getting pregnant for a max of about 10 years but can be removed by a doctor at any time.
Pros: The copper IUD definitely has its pros:
Cons: The copper IUD does have some disadvantages:
Some women and people who menstruate report side effects like cramps, heavy periods, and spotting between periods. The CDC says that irregular bleeding is expected during the first 3 months of using the copper IUD but decreases as time goes on.
As with similar medical devices, Harvard Medical School says there is a risk for possible problems with the copper IUD:
Whom it's for: Many women and people who menstruate who can't use birth control with hormones or choose not to opt for the copper IUD. The copper IUD is probably best for you if you're not thinking of having children anytime soon and would rather have the convenience of this "set-it-and-forget-it" method. Younger women and teens, or moms who don't want to have children for a few years or are done with having kids, could benefit from getting the copper IUD. Also, researchers have found that for women with diabetes, the copper IUD is a safe option.
2: The diaphragm with spermicide
Okay, so now we're going to get into the barrier methods*, the non-hormonal birth control methods that provide a physical barrier between the sperm and the egg. These methods make sure that the sperm and egg do not meet! Because if they do, the sperm can fertilize the egg, and from there, the fetus begins developing. And that's what we don't want to happen.
*Editor's Note: Just a heads-up: We'll talk more about barrier methods like male and female condoms, cervical caps, and contraceptive sponges later in this article.
You can get the diaphragm with a prescription from your doctor. You would have to go into the office to get the diaphragm fitted for your body, but you can put it in and take it out yourself after that. Some brand names of the diaphragm are Koromex™ and Ortho-Diaphragm™.
Effectiveness: With typical use, about 12 out of 100 women and people who menstruate may get pregnant using the diaphragm. With perfect use, 6 out of 100 women and people who menstruate may get pregnant in a year.
What is it: The diaphragm is a dome-shaped flexible disk made from silicone that's designed to cover the cervix (the top area of the vagina). You'd need to put spermicidal jelly, cream, or foam on the inside of it before inserting it into the vagina.
How it works: It blocks sperm from coming into the cervix, and the spermicide will kill any sperm (beware, sperm!) that come into contact with it.
How long does it last: Once you get it fitted, diaphragms are reusable and can last up to 2 years with proper care.
Cons: There are also disadvantages to using the diaphragm:
Whom it's for: The diaphragm is convenient for women and people who menstruate who want a method they can control, reusable over a couple of years. The diaphragm can be a good option for those who cannot use methods with hormones and want a short-acting, reversible form of birth control.
3: Phexxi vaginal gel
Phexxi™ is a "first-of-its-kind" non-hormonal vaginal gel approved by the FDA in August of 2020. Long story short, it's a much-improved version of something a lot older: a spermicide. You would need a doctor's prescription for Phexxi.
What is it: Phexxi is a vaginal gel containing lactic acid (a harmless chemical that is constantly produced by our bodies), citric acid (found in citrus fruits), and potassium bitartrate (often used in cooking). Phexxi comes as a gel in a pre-filled applicator that's applied into the vagina right before sex.
How it works: Basically, Phexxi works by temporarily lowering the pH of the vagina, making it an inhospitable environment for sperm. It's cool because it essentially is capitalizing on one of the vagina's natural defenses: its acidic pH, which helps to stop incoming sperm in their tracks and make them stop swimming.
Phexxi may cause side effects for some women and people who menstruate, including burning, pain, itching, or overall discomfort in or around the vagina
Whom it's for: Researchers at the University of Illinois developed the science behind Phexxi to give women and people who menstruate more control and other options to choose from to prevent pregnancy. Phexxi is an option for women who want a non-hormonal method that they have control over. An article in Nature about better birth control options says Phexxi might pair with women "who are not in long-term relationships and who need reliable, once-in-a-while contraception." It could work for those who can't use hormonal birth control or don't want a long-term prescription for birth control pills, for example.
4: Male or female condoms
The male condom is used quite a bit: The CDC says that according to 2011 data, about 1 out of 3 men ages 15--44 used a condom the last time they had sex. You can find male or female condoms like FC2™ at drugstores or other retail chains.
What is it: Male condoms are thin covers worn over the penis during sex, made of latex rubber or polyurethane. Female condoms fit inside the vagina and have a ring on each end. They are also made of polyurethane.
How it works: Male and female condoms have one job: To be a physical barrier to keep sperm away from the egg. They do this by preventing sperm from getting into the vagina.
Whom it's for: Condoms are a good choice for anyone looking to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Though condoms are less effective at preventing pregnancy than other methods like the IUD, they are better than no method at all. Some women and people who menstruate double up on protection and use a condom AND another method, like spermicide, for extra pregnancy prevention. But, you should never double up and use two condoms at the same time, even if one is a male condom and one is a female condom.
Other barrier methods: Cervical cap and sponge
So far, in this article, we've talked about 2 barrier methods: the diaphragm and the condom. But there are two additional barrier methods that some women and people who menstruate use:
The cervical cap is a soft rubber or silicone cup made to fit over the cervix (the top of the vagina). You'd use spermicide on the outer rim of the cap and inside the cap itself. To get it, you'd have to see your health care provider so they can figure out the right size for you. Then they can prescribe it.
The contraceptive sponge goes into the vagina to cover the cervix and block sperm from coming in. It's also used with spermicide. The nice thing about it is you don't need a prescription for it.
What about permanent non-hormonal birth control?
So far, we've talked about reversible methods that you can use to prevent pregnancy. But what if you're done with having kids or choose not to have them? Then, a permanent form of birth control might be something to consider.
Here are the different options for permanent birth control:
Vasectomy: This one's for the guys who are sure they never want to have children or do not want any more. It's a permanent surgery that's done once. Though sometimes it's possible to reverse the surgery, there's no guarantee, and it's a complicated surgery at that. So your guy has to be sure, case closed. Out of 100 women and people who menstruate whose partners have had a vasectomy, less than 1 may get pregnant.
Sterilization surgery (trans-abdominal surgical sterilization): This one's for the women and people who menstruate who are sure they don't want children in the future (or are done with having kids). It's a permanent surgery that is not easily reversible. Doctors do the surgery called tubal ligation, which is when the fallopian tubes are tied and cut (hence "getting your tubes tied"). The tubes can also be sealed with an electrical current or closed with clips or clamps. Less than 1 out of 100 women who've had sterilization surgery get pregnant.
How about natural forms of birth control?
Okay, so this article has spanned the range of effectiveness when it comes to non-hormonal birth control. We've talked about the uber-effective ones, like the copper IUD and permanent sterilization. We've also talked about the barrier methods. Now come the natural options, which you might have heard of (there's a lot of self-awareness and calendaring involved). These are legitimate methods that women and people who menstruate use, but know that these are some of the least effective ways to prevent pregnancy.
The withdrawal method. Also known as the "pull and pray" method. This already sounds a bit unreliable, yeah? It's essentially when the male partner "pulls out" of the woman's vagina before ejaculation. For couples who use the withdrawal method, about 22 out of 100 women and people who menstruate may get pregnant. This number is a guess based on the risk of pregnancy from pre-ejaculate fluid.
Natural family planning method (aka the rhythm method): You might also hear this called a fertility-awareness-based method. As it sounds, this option relies on you know precisely which days you're most fertile and then avoiding sex (or using a condom) on those days. It's not considered a reliable method but could be the best fit for some couples. It takes a lot of planning every month. The CDC says this method is only about 24% effective, or that out of 100 women who use natural family planning, about 24 may get pregnant.
What about breastfeeding? If you need a short-term birth control method and have just had a baby within the last 6 months, you might consider this option. The Office on Women's Health says that the risk of pregnancy is less than 2 out of 100 if:
Recap: Which non-hormonal birth control method is best for you?
Okay, so there you have it! The "best" non-hormonal birth control method is the one that is most effective AND fits your lifestyle.
You should think about the following when choosing the right birth control method for you:
When it comes to the most effective non-hormonal birth control method, the copper IUD wins, and permanent procedures of birth control like sterilization surgery. Then, you have your barrier methods, like the diaphragm and male or female condoms. Included in the list is the new vaginal gel called Phexxi, which is a much-improved spermicide. You have options, which is the essential part. Don't hesitate to ask your doctor about which method is right for you. And now, onwards and upwards in your journey!
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