A Star Returns: Elaine Benes' Favorite Form of Birth Control Makes a Comeback

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

WebMD Feature

After a four-year lapse, that little, round, pink piece of foam that gained national attention on the sitcom "Seinfeld" is scheduled for a comeback. The Today sponge, discontinued in 1995, may be back on shelves this fall, thanks to Allendale Pharmaceuticals of Allendale, New Jersey.

When the apparatus became scarce and, ultimately unavailable, many sponge devotees were outraged. Legend has it that they were driven to hoard the devices as Jerry Seinfeld's pal Elaine did on the TV show. In fact, Elaine weighed the "sponge-worthiness" of potential lovers to determine whether sleeping with them was worth giving up one of her coveted sponges.

An Old Favorite

Once the most popular female-controlled, over-the-counter form of birth control, the sponge was used by 6.4 million women between 1983 and 1995. It was discontinued when the original manufacturers, American Home Products, decided not to spend the hefty amount needed to bring its factory equipment up to Federal Drug Administration (FDA) standards. The sponge was not pulled from the marketplace because of lack of safety or efficacy, as some rumors had suggested. In fact, the FDA never revoked its approval. Now that Allendale owns the equipment and rights, the company hopes to make the sponge widely available once again.

"I've been astounded by the reception," says Gene Detroyer, Allendale's chief executive officer, concerning women's reactions to the possible reintroduction. He's received an outpouring of e-mail messages from women who can't wait to get their hands on the sponges. "I knew it was going to be well-received because of focus groups we did, but this has surpassed my greatest expectations," he observes.

Why So Popular?

The sponge provides women with another choice in birth control. "When it comes to sexual health, options are a good thing," says Sandor Gardos, Ph.D., a San Francisco-based sexologist.

Options, particularly over-the-counter ones, are few. Aside from spermicides and the female condom, the sponge is the only nonprescription alternative for women.

The sponge, unlike the pill, the most popular prescription method, it has few side effects and can be used at a moment's notice. However, it needs to be moistened with water before it is used. Measuring 1.75 inches in diameter and.50 inches in thickness, the sponge is coated with sperm-killing nonoxynol-9 and has a dimple in the middle that fits over the cervix. A ribbon-like loop aids in removing the device -- this might be trying to some users.

According to Dr. David Archer, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, the sponge's effectiveness is due primarily to the nonoxynol-9. While some believe that the device also functions as a barrier, keeping the sperm from entering the cervix, Archer says studies to support that assumption have not been performed.

The Sponge's Advantages Include:

  • It is immediately effective.
  • No doctor's visit is necessary.
  • It lasts for 24 hours.
  • One size fits all.
  • It is disposable.
  • It has few side effects.

The sponge is particularly helpful for women who can't take hormonal contraceptives, such as the pill, or those who are sensitive to latex. "I think the sponge will also have a utilization for women who wish to use a barrier and prefer one that is disposable and discreet," says Archer.

The Downside

As with most contraceptives, there are drawbacks to the sponge. For starters, women who are sensitive to nonoxynol-9 can't use it. In addition, the device's insertion can be tricky, and proper insertion is key to its effectiveness. Because a doctor's visit is not required to procure the sponge, women do not have the opportunity to be shown proper use by a medical professional.

According to Susan Tew, spokeswoman for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the effectiveness of birth control methods, the sponge's failure rate hovers around 20 percent largely because of incorrect use. Failure rate for the male condom is 12 percent, while that for spermicides is about 21 percent.

Another drawback is that the sponge offers little or no protection from sexually transmitted diseases. Unless a woman is sure her partner is disease-free, condoms should be used in combination with the sponge.

Not New, but Improved

The new sponge will be exactly the same as the original with a few utilitarian improvements, such as clearer instructions and a toll-free number to call for answers to questions. "In combination with a condom, it's a great sort of one-two punch," says Gardos, "and a great back-up method if a condom breaks."

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