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Birth Control Education
Health Topic

Overview of Vaginal Spermicides

Vaginal spermicides can be used alone or with vaginal barrier methods such as the diaphragm. Nonoxynol-9, the active ingredient in most spermicides, is combined with a formulation such as gel, foam, cream, film or suppository. Some of these formulations help to disperse the spermicide as well as add lubrication. Nonoxynol-9 is a surfactant that destroys the sperm cell membrane.

Effectiveness depends on consistent and correct use. Always follow manufactories instructions to ensure correct use of the specific formulation you are using. For spermicides to be effective manufacturers recommend that it be placed correctly in the vagina no longer than 1 hour before intercourse. The product should be deep in the vagina close to the cervix. In particular, suppositories, foaming tablets and films need adequate time for dissolution and dispersion to be most effective. A new application of spermicide is needed each time the woman has intercourse. It is recommended to leave the spermicide in place at least 6 hours after last intercourse.

Using a physical (such as a condom or diaphragm) and chemical barrier together increases contraceptive efficacy. Also, using emergency contraception to back up spermicides in situations of incorrect or non-use will increase effectiveness. Finally, some people have an allergy or sensitivity to spermicides and may experience skin irritation (if this occurs trying another contraceptive method is suggested). With frequent use (twice a day or more) there may be breakdown of the skin which may increase the risk of infection with HIV. There is no evidence that spermicides protect against sexually transmitted infections.


  • Available without a prescription
  • Can be purchased at pharmacies and supermarkets
  • Can be easily carried by the women or partner
  • Spermicides can be used to increase the effectiveness of fertility awareness-based methods


  • High failure rate
  • Possible allergic reaction to nonoxynol-9
  • May provide an unpleasant taste if the couple practice oral sex

Availability & Efficacy

  • Availability: Over the counter product; does not require a prescription (available for purchase through SHCS Medical Services at the Pharmacy, located on the first floor of the UC Davis Student Health & Wellness Center)
  • Failure Rate: Typical use: 29%, Perfect use: 6%


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