Contraception Barrier Methods

A barrier method of birth control is designed to prevent pregnancy by keeping sperm away from the uterus, destroying them, or a combination of the two. Barrier contraceptive methods are relatively inexpensive and widely available, such as at your local health clinic. By using barrier methods correctly, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, can be prevented.

To be effective, a barrier contraceptive method must be used correctly. Many studies have established varying degrees of effectiveness. According to the National Women’s Health Information Center, the failure rates of the most common barrier contraceptive methods are:

  • Male condom: 11 to 16 percent
  • Female condom: 20 percent
  • Contraceptive sponge: 16 to 32 percent
  • Diaphragm with spermicide: 15 percent
  • Spermicide alone: 30 percent.

The most common types of barrier methods of birth control will be discussed below:

Barrier Method: Contraceptive Sponge

Made of polyurethane and doused with spermicide, contraceptive sponges block the uterus and kill sperm. They should be inserted in the vagina before having sex, and can remain in place for up to six hours afterwards.

  • Advantages: This barrier contraceptive method is easy to use and widely available. It offers ongoing protection once in place, no matter how many times you have sex.
  • Disadvantages: This barrier method can be difficult to remove, sometimes causing irritation or allergic reaction. Also, women can’t use sponges if they’re menstruating.
  • Risks: If sponges are left in too long, there is a risk of toxic shock syndrome, which is an overwhelming, sometimes fatal, bacterial infection. In addition, these barrier contraceptive methods don’t prevent STDs, and aren’t as effective as some other methods.

Contraceptive Sponge - Barrier Method of Birth Control

Barrier Method: The Diaphragm

Made of silicone rubber, diaphragms look like little, flexible domes. They’re coated with spermicide and inserted into the vagina before sex.

  • Advantages: Neither partner should feel a properly inserted diaphragm. They’re reusable, inserted at the discretion of the woman, and won’t affect fertility or menstruation.
  • Disadvantages: This barrier method must be fitted by a healthcare professional, and is uncomfortable for some women.
  • Risks: This barrier contraceptive method is linked to greater risk of bladder infections, and can cause toxic shock syndrome if left in for more than 24 hours.

Barrier Method: The Condom (Female)

Worn inside a woman’s vagina, the condom for a female is a sheath with two rings. One ring stays outside, partially covering the labia, while the other covers the cervix.

Female Condom - Barrier Method of Birth Control

  • Advantages: A female condom is placed at the discretion of the woman, works with all lubricants, and is good for latex allergy sufferers.
  • Disadvantages: A female condom costs more than a male condom.
  • Risks: The female condom can be difficult to insert, and might physically shift during sex. Some find this barrier method noisy, and the outer ring uncomfortable.

Barrier Method: The Condom (Male)

The male condom is a thin shield of latex, polyurethane or natural skin. Worn over an erect penis, this barrier contraceptive method traps sperm after ejaculation.

  • Advantages: The condom is relatively cheap, easy to use and readily available. This barrier contraceptive method also helps prevent the spread of STDs.
  • Disadvantages: Putting on the condom during an intimate moment may reduce spontaneity and, for some, sensitivity. Latex allergy sufferers might notice discomfort. A new condom is required each time you have sex.
  • Risks: The condom can break, tear, or fail easily, increasing risk of pregnancy.


Usually sold as a cream or gel, spermicide does just what it sounds like – kills sperm. For optimal effectiveness, spermicide is used in combination with a condom, diaphragm or special applicator.

  • Advantages: You can purchase this barrier method without a prescription, and it’s fairly simple to use.
  • Disadvantages: Steady use can irritate the vaginal lining and increase risk of contracting STDs. Also, this agent is not particularly effective at preventing pregnancy when used alone.
  • Risks: These barrier contraceptive methods contain a chemical named nonoxynol-9, which can irritate the skin. They also increase a woman’s risk of urinary tract infections.


American Social Health Association Staff. (2010). Sexual health: Your safer sex toolbox. Retrieved February 8, 2010, from the ASHASTD Web site:

Avert Staff. (2009). Questions about contraception. Retrieved February 8, 2010, from the Avert Web site:

National Institutes of Health Staff. (2008). Contraception. Retrieved February 8, 2010, from the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Web site: