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The Birth Control That's Like a Listerine Strip for Your Vagina

Photograph by Getty Images/EyeEm

At my last OB-GYN check-up, I asked about birth control. I'm still nursing my second baby, and I'm not exactly having honeymoon sex, but I was optimistic that I'd need a plan for the future. My doc suggested vaginal contraceptive film (VCF), to which I gave him a blank look. Vagi-what?

Since I'd been busy having babies for the past 6 years, I figured maybe I'd missed a hot new birth control trend. But when I asked around, none of my girlfriends had heard of VCF either, so I did some research.

For those in the dark, vaginal contraceptive film is a spermicide you insert at least 15 minutes before intercourse by placing a small film near your cervix. It doesn't need to be removed because it dissolves—kind of like a Listerine strip for your vagina. It's available without a prescription, anywhere from Target to Amazon. A box of 9 individually wrapped films costs about $10, so just a little over a dollar a pop.

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One thing that women like about VCF is that it can be used on an as-needed basis. "I didn't need to remember to take a pill daily or change a ring monthly," said Vanessa M., who used VCF for about six months.

"It's low commitment," agreed Dr. Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, an OB-GYN in Beverly Hills, CA. Unlike, say, an IUD, "If you have side effects, you can just stop using it." Those side effects could include itching or burning, if it turns out you have a sensitivity to nonoxynol-9.

So it would seem that VCF is low commitment, low hassle, cheap, easy to find and doesn't jack you up on hormones. Which begs the question: what's the catch?

For those who tolerate spermicides well, VCF is less messy than other varieties, said Myriah K, who has been using the birth control method for two years. (And less messy is a big bonus, especially if oral sex is on the menu.) However, it can take a little practice to insert it correctly. "Make sure your hands are clean and dry," Myriah advised. "I sit on the edge of the tub and kind of just push it up as far as I can get it. You have to do it as fast as you can because it will stick to your finger. I went through two or three the first time trying to get it in."

Once you've mastered the technique, VCF is "clean and easy to use," said Adella J., who switched to the contraceptive after having her first child. For Adella, the only downside is "you have to wait 15 minutes to have sex." I greatly admire, but do not relate to, the urgency in this mom's sex life.

Several of the women I spoke to liked using birth control that is hormone-free. That's a popular sentiment these days, according to Dr. Gilberg-Lenz. "A lot more patients are over hormonal contraception and birth control pills in particular," she said. "They don't want to manipulate their hormones. They want to know what their bodies feel like and what they feel like."

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So it would seem that VCF is low commitment, low hassle, cheap, easy to find and doesn't jack you up on hormones. Which begs the question: what's the catch?

Well, the whole point of birth control is preventing pregnancy, and according to WebMD, vaginal contraceptive film are approximately 74 to 94 percent effective. Why the huge, confusing range? "With a spermicide, it's very operator dependent," cautioned Dr. Gilberg-Lenz, adding that spermicides used alone are typically only about 80 percent effective. "If you're between kids and it's not a disaster if you get pregnant, then fine."

Of the women I interviewed, none had become pregnant while using VCF, but anyone requiring more of a sure thing should consider using VCF in combination with another method, like a condom. Or practice nature's best birth control: spending time with a crying baby.

Just let me know if you need to borrow mine.

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