Using an app to monitor your fertility and track your period is pretty common, but never has an app been officially approved as a contraceptive—until now.
Earlier this month, the body of inspection and certification based in Germany, Tüv Süd, classified Natural Cycles as a class IIb medical device, which puts it alongside condoms, the pill and IUDs in the EU. App-based products that don't include testable, patentable external devices don't require approval from the FDA for promotion and use in the U.S., though Business Insider reports Natural Cycle is waiting for the FDA approval's before it plans a large-scale launch in the U.S.
How does the app work?
Natural Cycles takes centuries-old family planning methods and makes it more accessible and more accurate. You input information like your daily temperature readings, and the app's fancy schmancy proprietary algorithm takes your data to predict when you'll ovulate. If you don't want to get pregnant, days you shouldn't have sex or should use a condom will be marked in red (fertile days) and safe days will be marked green. (This could also help women trying to conceive track their most fertile days.)
Does it work?
Natural Cycles is a clinically tested alternative and more accurate than similar fertility tracking methods. In a paper published last year in the European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Healthcare, the team behind the Swedish app found that out of more than 4,000 users, the app's failure rate for "typical use" (meaning how most people use a form of contraception, slip-ups included, instead of "perfect use") was 7 percent. Typical use failure rate for an IUD is 0.2 to 0.8 percent, injectable birth control is 6 percent and the pill is 9 percent.
This is great news for women who are sick of hormonal or intrusive birth control options.
“Natural Cycles allow women to better understand their bodies so they can make choices that are right for them," Dr. Elina Berglund, nuclear physicist and co-creator of the app, told News Corp Australia. According to Buzzfeed News, Berglund and her husband, Dr. Raoul Scherwitzl, created the app's algorithm for personal use before deciding to share it with the rest of the world.
Like all current birth control options, it's not perfect. The study itself has some drawbacks. It was conducted by the company itself with data analyzed retrospectively, so sexual health groups are calling for more independent research. Also women included in the study were between 20 and 35 years old, which means there are no definitive results for women outside that age group.
Plus, if you're ditching the pill because it's a hassle, Natural Cycles might not be the replacement you're looking for. It's even more of a hassle. You'll have to take your temperature every morning as soon as you wake up, measuring to at least two decimal points, and be good about logging it into your app. Sometimes even having a few extra minutes in the morning is impossible for moms.
And the fact is, not every woman has regular periods, predictable sex schedules or a clean sexual bill of health. In the study, women also went against the app's advice and have unprotected sex on days the app says not to. (Sex for parents can already be few and far between, so we can't blame moms for bending the rules a bit when the opportunity finally arises.)
Bottom line? Like other forms of contraception, fertility apps can really work for some people but aren't the best option for others. What's great is the app offers another choice for women, and it's one that's becoming more and more scientifically examined.
Last week, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center's Institute for Reproductive Health announced the launch of a year-long study on another family-planning app, Dot, which has shown signs of being up to 98 percent effective. The study will be the first of its kind and will follow real women in real time.