Over-the-counter birth control

Alternative names 
Birth control - over the counter; Contraceptives - over the counter


Birth control methods are used during sex to avoid pregnancy. Some methods also reduce your risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), or giving an STD to someone else. Most drug stores carry a wide selection of birth control products that can be purchased by anyone, without a doctor’s prescription.


  • A condom is a thin sheath placed on the penis or, in the case of the female condom, within the vagina prior to intercourse. Semen is collected inside the condom, which must be carefully held in place and then removed after intercourse.  
  • Condoms are readily available in most drug and grocery stores. Some family planning clinics may offer free condoms.  
  • Latex condoms help prevent HIV and other STDs.  
  • About 14 pregnancies occur over 1 year out of 100 couples using male condoms, and about 21 pregnancies occur over 1 year out of 100 couples using female condoms. They are more effective when spermicide is also used.


  • Spermicides are chemical jellies, foams, creams, or suppositories that kill sperm. They are inserted into the vagina prior to intercourse.  
  • They can be purchased in most drug and grocery stores.  
  • This method used by itself is not very effective. About 26 pregnancies occur over 1 year out of 100 women using this method alone. Therefore, spermicides are often combined with other methods (such as condoms or diaphragm) as extra protection.


  • Vaginal contraceptive sponges are soft synthetic sponges saturated with a spermicide. Prior to intercourse, the sponge is moistened, inserted into the vagina, and placed over the cervix. After intercourse, the sponge is left in place for 6 to 8 hours.  
  • It is quite similar to the diaphragm (which must be obtained from a doctor) as a barrier mechanism.  
  • About 18 to 28 pregnancies occur over one year for every 100 women using this method. The sponge may be more effective in women who have not previously delivered a baby.  
  • This method was removed from the U.S. market, but plans are underway to re-introduce it in the near future.


  • The “morning after” pill consists of two doses of hormone pills taken as soon as possible within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse.  
  • The pill may prevent pregnancy by temporarily blocking eggs from being produced, by stopping fertilization, or keeping a fertilized egg from becoming implanted in the uterus.  
  • Emergencies include being raped; having a condom break or slip off during sex; missing two or more birth control pills during a monthly cycle; and having unplanned sex.  
  • As of May 2004 it requires a prescription. Call your provider for more information about morning after birth control.

Although over-the-counter methods are not quite as effective against pregnancy as some prescription methods, they are more effective against STDs than anything other method than abstinence. They offer people ways to protect themselves against pregnancies and STDs without having to spend a lot of money, wait for a doctor’s appointment, or deal with long-term side effects.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 7, 2012
by Mamikon Bozoyan, M.D.

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