birth control basics - what's up with the 4 most popular BC methods
With over 15 different types of birth control options ranging from the pullout method (don’t count on it!) to vaginal inserts that stay in the body up to 12 years, deciding on a pregnancy prevention method is almost enough to send us into celibacy (100% effective, but we’re 100% kidding).
With research and knowledge, finding the right birth control is possible. Of course, you should talk to your Doc about what will work for you, but doing your own research is important to help you feel empowered about your decision. We’ve done some of the dirty work for you and rounded up 4 of the most popular forms of female birth control for you to compare. They all have their perks and all have different effects on our bodies.
Take note: the second and third most popular forms of contraception are (2) female sterilization and (3) condoms. The fifth and sixth are (5) male sterilization (vasectomy) and (6) withdrawal. We left those out for the purpose of this article.
1. The Pill (25% of women use this method*)
What’s what: The pill is an oral pill, taken daily. There are two types. One type is called combination pills and these contain estrogen and progestin. These pills are taken 21 days in a month, and for the other 7 days, placebo pills (or no pills) are taken.
The other type is often called a “mini-pill”--these only contain progestin, and these pills are taken each day of the month (this means you won’t get your period on a set week).
How it works: The pill uses hormones to prevent your ovaries from releasing eggs. The hormones also increase the thickness of your cervical lining, which makes it harder for sperm to reach the eggs in the first place.
Effectiveness: The pill is 99% effective when taken correctly.
What you need to do: Take it every day, at the same time each day. The pill is less effective when you take it at irregular times and even less effective if you forget days. All combination pill packs will come with 3 weeks (21 days) of hormonal pills and some will also come with 1 week of placebo (non-hormonal, no active ingredient) pills that are there to help you keep that habit of taking that pill every day!
- You can track and expect your periods easily and even skip them altogether if you want to (combination pills only).
- The pill might help with cramps.
- The pill might make your period lighter.
- You can easily control your fertility. If you start taking the pill within five days of your period starting, you will be protected from pregnancy right away, and when you stop taking it, you can return to being fertile within a few days.
- Some pills are said to help prevent health issues like ovarian cysts, pelvic inflammatory disease, and endometrial and ovarian cancer.
- If you take the pill as directed, you will be almost 100% protected from pregnancy.
- Periods may be sporadic or irregular on mini-pills.
- You may bleed in between your periods.
- Side effects may include nausea and vomiting.
- Hormonal birth control increases your risk of yeast infections because it messes with your natural hormonal balance.
- It may cause depression.
- It may decrease your sex drive, long term.
Things to consider: Any type of hormonal birth control works by throwing off the natural cycle of your body. Not many scientific studies that show that disrupting your natural cycle is harmful, but there are studies that show it messes with your love life (more on that later).
2. IUD - (11.8% of women use this method*)
What’s what: IUDs (intrauterine devices) are t-shaped pieces of plastic (and in some cases copper) that are inserted into the cervix by a doctor. There are two types: hormonal and non-hormonal.
How it works: Hormonal IUDs (Mirena, Skyla, Liletta, Kyleena) work by releasing a small amount of synthetic hormone progestin, which thickens your cervical mucus. This, in turn, prevents sperm from reaching your uterus.
The non-hormonal IUD (ParaGard) is made of plastic and copper. Copper is toxic to sperm and essentially the IUD makes your cervix a place they simply can’t survive.
Effectiveness: IUDs are among the most effective birth controls and over 99% effective.
What you need to do: Go to a healthcare provider to have your IUD inserted. When it’s time to have it replaced or when you want to get pregnant, visit your doctor to have it removed.
- Hormonal IUDs may reduce cramps and make your period lighter.
- Non-hormonal IUDs don’t mess with your body’s natural hormones and cycle. Your period will remain the same.
- After insertion, you can basically forget it until you want to get pregnant.
- Some IUDs can be used for up to 12 years.
- You can become fertile again quickly after removing it.
- IUDs can cause cramps, backaches and spotting in between periods.
- Hormonal birth control can cause depression.
- The non-hormonal IUD can cause increased blood flow during periods.
- There’s a chance it can come dislodged over time or push through the wall of the uterus when being inserted.
- There’s a small chance of infection.
Other things to consider: Hormonal IUDs use hormones that disrupt your body’s natural cycle and balance. IUDs don’t prevent ectopic pregnancies (when a pregnancy develops outside of the uterus). Women with a smaller cervix may notice more pain during insertion and heavier bleeding throughout use. Check out this Vice article for more on IUD mishaps and misinformation.
3. The Shot (3.9% of women use this method*)
What’s What: The shot (Depo-Provera) is a shot that prevents pregnancy for up to three months.
How it works: The progestin in Depo prevents eggs from being released by the ovaries and thickens your cervical mucus which helps prevent sperm from reaching the eggs.
Effectiveness: The shot is over 99% effective when shots are taken on time.
What you need to do: Visit a healthcare provider every 3 months to have the shot administered.
- The shot is discreet and no one will know you’re taking it unless you tell them.
- It’s easy--you don’t have to worry about taking a pill every day.
- It might make your periods lighter or disappear altogether.
- It can be used if you can’t take estrogen.
- Some women experience weight gain on the shot (around 5 pounds in the first year).
- Your period might be irregular for the first six months of taking the shot.
- You might experience a loss of sex drive.
- You may experience depression, headaches, dizziness, nervousness, nausea, and sore breasts.
- If you experience side effects, you’re stuck with them until the shot wears off.
- Sometimes it takes women up to 10 months to return to fertility after taking the shot.
Other things to consider: Once you’ve done it, there’s no undoing it. If you’re not happy with the shot after you’ve had it injected, you have to wait it out until the medicine leaves your body. However, it can be great and easy if it works for you--the only way to know is to try!
4. Vaginal Ring (2.4% of women use this method*)
What’s what: The ring (NuvaRing) is a vaginal insert that is shaped like a bracelet. It’s soft and flexible and can be inserted by hand.
How it works: The ring releases the hormones progestin and estrogen into the blood system. This prevents your ovaries from releasing eggs and makes it harder for sperm to reach the eggs also.
Effectiveness: It’s 98% effective when used correctly.
What you need to do: You can insert the ring by yourself, wherever and however you feel most comfortable. It’s kind of like putting in a tampon without an applicator. Leave the ring in for three weeks and then take it out for one. That week you’ll have your period. After 7 days, put a new ring in.
- It’s pretty easy to use and you don’t have to remember to take a pill every day.
- You might notice you have shorter and lighter periods.
- It might help clear up acne.
- It can help reduce cramps.
- You can easily control your fertility--if you start using it in the first 5 days of your period, you’ll be protected right away. if you want to get pregnant, just can return to fertility within days of taking out the ring.
- Some studies show the ring protects against endometrial and ovarian cancer, iron deficiency anemia, ovarian cysts, and pelvic inflammatory disease.
- You might bleed between periods, but this will most likely go away after a few months of use.
- It might cause your breasts to be tender.
- It can cause nausea and vomiting, but again, that would most likely go away after a few months of use.
- Some women experience infection, increased vaginal discharge, and irritation--if these symptoms last long this method probably wouldn’t be right for you.
- Because it’s hormonal, it can decrease your sex drive.
- Your partner might be able to feel it during sex or it might slip out. Luckily there’s a pretty easy fix for this one--you can remove the ring for up to 3 hours a day and still enjoy the same level of protection. Just don’t forget to rinse and put it back in!
Things to consider: This is a form of hormonal birth control, so you will be messing with your body’s natural hormone levels and cycles, just as the pill does.
Things to consider about all hormonal birth control:
As we mentioned earlier, hormonal birth control throws off your body’s natural cycles and adds synthetic hormones to your body. While millions of women around the world take birth control their whole lives and are protected without adverse effects, it’s good to know that these hormones can do funky stuff to our bodies.
For example, one study showed that while a woman is on hormonal birth control, she will be attracted to different types of men than when she goes off it. Another study showed that hormonal birth control lessens a woman’s ability to produce pheromones, one of the biggest ways we attract our mates. Hormonal birth control is also linked to higher cancer rates for some types of cancer.
Again, just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it happens to everyone. Hormonal birth control is great because it's super effective and easy to get. If you feel its right for you, try it out! See how it feels in your body--it might be the perfect method for you.
Feeling protected against unwanted pregnancy is a big part of having a happy sex life. No one likes to stress about not getting their period on time. There are upsides and downsides to all birth control and finding the right one for your life is really the most important part.
Besides the ones that we mention here, women also use natural methods and other things like spermicide and the sponge to prevent pregnancy, although they aren’t as reliable or as widely studied as pharmaceuticals.
For more information about all forms of birth control, we recommend visiting Bedsider.org.
*Of women who use contraception in the United States
Written with love by Kristen Koester-Smith of copybykristen.com, providing copywriting and storytelling for brands of integrity.