What types of contraceptives are there?

Contraception fact sheet

Many different types of contraception prevent unplanned pregnancies from occurring. This is important for any sexually active person to consider to allow for a healthy, risk-free sex life within your relationships. Some methods of contraception are long-lasting, such as the pill, implant or coil while others, such as condoms, are single-use only. Contraception is freely available in the UK from your GP, pharmacy, sexual health clinic or family planning clinic. Condoms are available to purchase from drugstores, supermarkets and corner shops. 

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The combined contraceptive pill 

Key information: 

  • The pill is a hormonal contraceptive 
  • It is 99% effective 
  • Not suitable for all women 
  • Can pose health risks

The combined pill, more commonly referred to as the pill, is one of the most popular methods of contraception for women in the UK. It contains two types of female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, which are released into the womb to prevent fertilisation from taking place. It essentially works by overriding your natural menstrual cycle and stopping the ovaries from releasing an egg each month during ovulation. The pill must be taken every day for three weeks before having a seven break where your period occurs. 

You will require a prescription from a doctor or pharmacist as your suitability for the pill must be established. You will also need to have your blood pressure checked regularly as the pill can raise the risk of blood clots for all women. Common side effects associated with it include mood swings, nausea, headaches, breakthrough bleeding, breast tenderness and loss of sex drive. These will usually disappear after the first couple of months. 

The mini pill 

Key information: 

  • The mini pill is a hormonal contraceptive 
  • It contains fewer hormones than the combined pill
  • It does not pose the same health risks 
  • It is 91% effective with typical use 

The mini pill is another type of hormonal contraceptive that only contains the progesterone hormone. It works in a similar way to the combined pill, but it must be taken continuously throughout the month. The mini-pill produces fewer side effects than the combined pill as it has fewer hormones. It is also suitable for many women who cannot take the combined pill, such as individuals with high blood pressure, certain medical histories and smokers over the age of 35. 

You may experience side effects including mood changes, acne, breast tenderness, headaches and vomiting. The mini-pill does not increase the risk of blood clots or any associated conditions. With perfect use, the mini-pill is 99% effective but taking into account the way most women realistically take it (i.e. not within the 3 or 12-hour window each day) it is thought to be 91% effective. 

Male condoms 

Key information:

  • Condoms are 98% effective
  • Barrier method of contraception 
  • They are widely available and can be bought in shops
  • They also protect against STIs 

Male condoms are a barrier method of contraception that stop sperm from reaching the vagina so that pregnancy cannot occur. They are made of latex and cover the length of a man’s penis. Condoms are readily available from sexual health clinics, pharmacies, shops and college campuses and are the only type of contraception that protects against sexually transmitted infections. They are easy to use and do not produce side effects. 

Oil-based lubricants, vaseline and moisturiser, can damage the latex so you should avoid these substances when using condoms. Condoms can occasionally tear, split or come off during sex. If this happens, you will need to seek out emergency contraception. Polyurethane or polyisoprene condoms are available for those who are allergic to latex. It’s always recommended to use a condom with a new partner until you are in an exclusive relationship and are certain of each other’s sexual health. 

Female condoms

Key information: 

  • Female condoms are 95% effective 
  • Barrier method of contraception 
  • They are widely available and can be bought in shops
  • They also protect against STIs 

Female condoms are similar to male ones, except they are worn inside the vagina. They are made from latex and act as a barrier method to prevent sperm from entering the vagina. A female condom needs to be placed into the vagina before having any contact with the penis. They also protect against sexually transmitted infections and are discarded after use. 

Female condom have a slight risk of getting pushed up to the top of the vagina, or getting torn. If this happens, seek emergency contraception to ensure you do not become pregnant. If it gets pushed too far into the vagina, it should be easy to remove it with your fingers. Some women may find female condoms uncomfortable to use as it involves touching the vagina. 

The contraceptive injection 

Key information: 

  • Hormonal contraceptive 
  • Long term reversible contraceptive
  • 99% effective 
  • Lasts for 8-13 weeks 

The contraceptive injection releases the hormone progesterone into your bloodstream to prevent ovulation from taking place. A nurse or GP administers the injection at your local family planning clinic or GP surgery. It will work straight away if you get it within the first five days of your period and it lasts for 8-13 weeks depending on the type. 

It can cause your periods to become irregular, and side effects include mood swings, weight gain, headaches and nausea. There is a risk of it having a thinning effect on the bones, but this will be reversed after you stop having the injection. After it wears off, it can take up to a year for your fertility to return. 

The contraceptive implant 

Key information: 

  • Hormonal contraceptive 
  • Long term reversible 
  • 99% effective 
  • Lasts for three years

The contraceptive implant is a small, plastic rod that is inserted into your upper arm, releasing the progesterone hormone into your bloodstream. A doctor or nurse does the procedure by making a small incision in your arm before inserting the implant. You will have a local anaesthetic applied to the area so you won’t be able to feel anything. Once it is in, the implant lasts for three years so you won’t have to think about it until it is due to be removed or replaced. 

The implant can cause your periods to become irregular and may also produce side effects such as mood swings, headaches, nausea, acne and weight gain. Some women find that their periods stop altogether. It can be removed at any time, and your fertility will return quickly afterwards. 

 

The IUD (copper coil)

Key information: 

  • The IUD is non-hormonal 
  • 99% effective 
  • Lasts for 5-10 years 
  • No side effects 

The intrauterine device is often referred to as the coil. It is a small t-shaped device made from plastic and copper which is inserted into the womb through the cervix by a trained doctor or nurse. It works by releasing copper into the womb to prevent sperm from reaching an egg. It also alters the mucus surrounding the cervix to make it difficult for sperm to enter. The IUD is suitable for most women and can be fitted at any time. It will last for 5-10 years, and it does not usually produce any side effects. It can be removed at any time, and you will be able to get pregnant straight away. 

The procedure itself will last around 5 minutes and may be uncomfortable. You will usually experience cramps afterwards, but this eases off after a day or so. Painkillers can help to deal with this. There is a risk of infection in the first six weeks, and in rare cases, it can cause damage to the womb or fall out. The IUD has two strings attached so that you can check it is still in place. Your doctor will show you how to do this.

IUS (hormonal coil) 

Key information: 

  • Hormonal contraceptive 
  • 99% effective 
  • Lasts 3-5 years 

The intrauterine system is a small t-shaped plastic device that is inserted into the womb and releases the progesterone hormone to prevent pregnancy. It thickens the cervical mucus to make it difficult for sperm to enter and thins the womb lining so that an egg is unable to implant itself. It may also stop ovulation. After insertion, the IUS lasts for 3-5 years, and it can be taken out at any time. 

The procedure can be uncomfortable, but painkillers can help with this. For some women, the IUS stops your period, but it can also make them irregular. As it is a hormonal contraceptive, you may experience side effects like mood changes, headaches, acne, weight gain or breast pain. 

The Patch 

Key information: 

  • Hormonal contraceptive 
  • 99% effective 
  • Each one lasts for one week 
  • Can cause side effects 

The contraceptive patch is applied to the skin and releases hormones into the bloodstream. It works in a similar way to the combined pill, containing both estrogen and progesterone hormones. The only difference being it is applied to the skin instead of taken orally. Each patch lasts for one week. Once it’s on, you don’t need to think about it until it’s time to replace it. 

It produces similar side effects to the pill, such as nausea, headaches, mood changes, weight gain and can increase your risk of blood clots. It can be worn in the shower or while swimming and should be placed on an area that is not likely to be rubbed off by tight clothing. 

The vaginal ring 

Key information: 

  • Hormonal contraceptive
  • 99% effective 
  • Lasts 21 days 

The vaginal ring is a small, soft plastic ring that is inserted into the vagina. It releases estrogen and progesterone hormones into the womb to prevent pregnancy. It works in the same way as the pill by preventing ovulation so that fertilisation cannot occur. Each ring lasts for 21 days. After this, it is removed, and a new one should be inserted after one week. It is a good option for women who find it difficult to remember to take the pill every day. 

It can produce side effects such as headaches, nausea and mood changes as with any hormonal contraceptive. Occasionally, it can come out, but you can reinsert it if this happens. The vaginal ring is available from your GP and pharmacist, and you put it in by yourself at home. 

 

Diaphragm or cap 

Key information: 

  • Barrier method of contraception 
  • 92% effective 
  • Use with spermicide 

A diaphragm is a small dome-shaped device made from silicone. It is inserted into the vagina before sex and covers the cervix so that sperm cannot enter. The cap is the same but slightly smaller. Both the diaphragm and cap should be used with spermicide, which is a gel that destroys sperm. It can be inserted at any time before sex. You can get a diaphragm from sexual health clinics, GPs and family planning clinics. 

It can take practice to get the hang of using a diaphragm, and it can increase the risk of cystitis, but it does not cause any serious side effects or risks. It must be left in for up to 6 hours after having sex before removing it, and it can be used as often as you like. 

 

Contraceptive sponge 

Key information: 

  • Barrier method 
  • 76-91% effective 
  • Less readily available 

The contraceptive sponge works in a similar way to a diaphragm. It is small and soft, resembling a sponge and is inserted high up into the vagina to cover the cervix. It stops sperm from getting through and also releases spermicide to kill off sperm. It can be inserted at any time before sex, and you can keep it in for up to 24 hours. 

The sponge has reduced in popularity over the years, so it’s not as readily available as other methods of contraception. It is also less effective than other methods at 76-91%. Some women find it very comfortable and it might suit those who cannot, or do not want to, use hormonal contraceptives. 

Natural family planning (fertility awareness) 

Key information: 

  • Natural 
  • 99% effective if done right 
  • Involves monitoring your cycle 

Natural family planning involves monitoring your menstrual cycle and recording fertility signals. It can take 3-6 months to learn the correct technique, and you should follow the advice given by a specialist family planning teacher. On the days when you are fertile, you would use a condom or diaphragm to ensure you do not get pregnant. 

View our full range of contraceptive pills.

Sources: 

NHS > The Combined Pill 
NHS > The Progesterone Only Pill
NHS > Condoms
NHS > Female Condoms
NHS > The Contraceptive Injection
NHS > The Contraceptive Implant
NHS > Intrauterine Device (IUD)
NHS > Intrauterine System (IUS)
NHS > Contraceptive Patch
NHS > The Vaginal Ring
NHS > Contraceptive diaphragm or cap
Well Girl > Contraceptive Sponge
NHS> Natural Family Planning (fertility awareness)
 

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