Barrier Methods of Birth Control

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Quick GuideChoosing Your Birth Control Method

Choosing Your Birth Control Method

Female condom

The female condom is not well known in the United States. It is essentially a cylindrical vaginal pouch made of soft polyurethane (a type of plastic) with a ring at either end. One end of the pouch is open. The other end is closed. A woman inserts the closed end high up in her vagina over her cervix. The open end remains on the outside of her vagina. The vagina is now lined with the condom. When she has intercourse, the man inserts his penis into the open end of the woman's condom. Once intercourse is over and the man withdraws his penis, the condom containing the semen can now be removed and discarded.

The female condom can be put in up to 8 hours before intercourse. A significant amount of practice may be necessary before a woman can properly insert and position a female condom. The sides of the internal ring can be folded together and inserted into the vagina much like a diaphragm is inserted. The female condom is thinner than the male condom and is resistant to degradation by oil-based lubricants.

A female condom should never be used when the man is also wearing a condom. The two condoms can stick together and tear, resulting in a total loss of protection.

The female condom (Reality) was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993. The Reality Condom is made of polyurethane, but other types of female condoms are available in other areas of the world. Its estimated effectiveness is 85% (15 pregnancies/100 women per year) as compared to 87% to 90% for the male condom.

Problems associated with the female condom include irritation and allergic reactions to the polyurethane. Other concerns are that the female condom is cumbersome, difficult to insert, may not remain in place, and is unattractive. It may also produce unpleasant noises if there is not enough lubrication. For this reason, most female condoms are now generously pre-lubricated with silicone and packets of additional lubricant are included. The lubricant does not contain spermicide.

The female condom (Reality) can be purchased over-the counter (OTC) without a prescription, but it may cost more than a male condom. Package instructions currently advise single use but studies are underway to determine if the female condom can be safely washed and reused up to five times.

The main disadvantage of the female condom is that it is not as effective as its male latex counterpart.

The main disadvantage of the female condom is that it is not as effective as the male latex condom in preventing pregnancy.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/10/2016

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