Literal “sperm killers,” spermicides are chemicals that are used to immobilize and kill a man’s sperm before it reaches the woman’s egg. Spermicides are one of the oldest forms of birth control. An Egyptian papyrus dating from 1850 b.c. describes a mixture of dough and crocodile dung that was inserted into the woman in order to prevent pregnancy.[1] It would block the sperm and, because of its acidic nature, perhaps also act as a spermicide. In second century Rome the writings of an ancient gynecologist named Soranus of Ephesus describe up to forty different spermicidal concoctions that could be created by mixing various fruits and nuts.[2]. In the early 1930s, women’s magazines even recommended using Lysol as a spermicide! To boost sales, some companies that manufactured athlete’s foot medicine went so far as to recommend that women could use it as a contraceptive, too![3].

Nowadays the most common active ingredient in spermicides is nonoxynol-9 (which is also found in some household cleaning supplies and laundry detergents). Initially it was hoped that spermicides could help to prevent the spread of AIDS.[4] However, the opposite has proven to be the case. The FDA announced in 2003 that nonoxynol-9 can damage the female reproductive tract by causing microabrasions, thus making her more likely to contract HIV or other STDs.[5] Because of the impact it has in the woman’s reproductive system, she is also more likely to have vaginal infections.

In a 2005 press release, Senator Tom Coburn said: “the FDA ignored scientific data that condoms and other contraceptives containing the spermicide nonoxynol-9 (N-9) increase HIV infection risk and actually recommended their use for HIV prevention. The new FDA recommendations finally correct this medically inaccurate and dangerous claim that the agency has long made regarding N-9.”[6]

In preventing pregnancy, spermicides have an annual failure rate of 18 percent with perfect use. However, their typical failure rate in preventing pregnancy is even higher—about 29 percent.[7] They are often used in combination with another form of birth control, such as a condom or diaphragm. Some condom manufacturers include spermicides on their products. However, in 2005 Consumer Reports said that such products “have no additional benefit in preventing pregnancy, have a shorter shelf life, and may cause urinary tract infections in young women.”[8] According to the World Health Organization, these products should no longer be promoted.[9] Spermicides can also cause itching, burning, irritation, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and bacterial vaginosis.

[1]. Baylor College of Medicine, “Evolution and Revolution: The Past, Present, and Future of Contraception,” The Contraception Report 10:6 (February 2000), 15.
[2]. Andrea Tone, “Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the 1930s,” Journal of Social History (Spring1996).
[3]. K.M. Wittkowski, “The Protective Effect of Condoms and Nonoxynol-9 Against HIV Infection,” American Journal of Public Health 88:4 (April 1998), 590–596.
[4]. FDA press release, “FDA Proposes New Warning for Over-the-Counter Contraceptive Drugs Containing Nonoxynol-9,” (January 16, 2003); Centers for Disease Control, “Nonoxynol-9 Spermicide Contraception Use—United States, 1999,” MMWR Weekly 51:18 (May 10, 2002), 389–392.
[5]. Press release, “Dr. Coburn Says New FDA Condom Regulations Make Inconclusive, Exaggerated Claims About Condom Effectiveness,” Washington, D.C. (November 10, 2005).
[6]. Hatcher, et al., Contraceptive Technology, Nineteenth Revised Edition.
[7]. “Condoms: Extra Protection,” Consumer Reports (February 2005).
[8]. Microbicides, World Health Organization (2006).

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