Spermicides and Lubricants

What are spermicides?

Spermicides are a contraceptive method that come in many forms including foam, cream, gel, film, and suppositories. Spermicides contain the chemicals non-oxynol 9 (N-9) or octoxynol that prevent pregnancy by immobilizing and killing sperm. 

What are lubricants?

Lubricants are products that increase sexual pleasure by making the contact surfaces wet and slippery and by decreasing friction and possible irritation. Lubricants can be water, silicone or oil based. If you are using the lubricant with a latex product (like latex condoms), be sure that it is water or silicone based. Oil based lubricant will cause the latex to deteriorate and could cause the condom to break.

The important difference between spermicides and lubricants is whether or not they offer any contraceptive protection. Spermicides prevent pregnancy; lubricants do not. Some lubricants come in forms similar to spermicides but offer no contraceptive protection, so if you need pregnancy protection, just be sure the package specifies that it is a contraceptive. 

How effective are spermicides in preventing pregnancy?

If you use spermicides alone (not using condoms or another method) correctly every time you have intercourse, there is a 6% risk of pregnancy. However, not all people who use spermicide use them correctly every time, so the average pregnancy rate is about 21%. 

Do spermicides prevent STI transmission?

Because spermicides kill sperm, scientists initially believed that they would also kill sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control, N-9 contraceptives do not protect against these infections and may increase STI exposure risk because it can cause genital irritation. To read more about this report, click here. 

How do I use spermicides?

General information on spermicide use:

  • For vaginal intercourse, spermicide is inserted into the vagina ahead of time.

  • Detailed instructions for use are always included in the packaging. Be sure to read them carefully before you use any of these products.

  • Insertion of a spermicide into the rectum, as a means of reducing STI risk, is not recommended because the spermicide can cause irritation of the rectal tissues, and can actually increase the risk of STI transmission. For STI protection, always use condoms when having anal sex.

  • For each act of intercourse you should insert another application of spermicide.

  • If more than 1 hour has passed between insertion of a spermicide and intercourse, another application of spermicide must be used.

  • The spermicidal chemicals may cause genital irritation, particularly N-9. If you experience inflammation or a burning sensation, look for a spermicide with octoxynol or a lower amount of N-9. The various spermicides are listed below and include information about their N-9 content.

Jellies, Creams & Gels
Jellies, creams and gels all have the same level of protection but have different consistencies and textures. Experiment to find which type of spermicide suits you and your partner. Twist the applicator on to the end of the tube of spermicide and fill the applicator. Untwist the applicator, insert it into the vagina approximately 3 inches and depress the plunger to squirt the spermicide out. All three products will protect you from pregnancy immediately. These spermicides vary in the amount of N-9 they contain, but most have between 1% and 5%. The applicator may be washed with mild soap and water, stored in a clean, dry place and used again.

Spermicidal foam is the same consistency of mousse hair-styling products. Shake the can of foam vigorously for at least 30 seconds. Press the tip of the applicator on the nozzle of the can, press down and fill the applicator. Insert the applicator into the vagina approximately three inches and depress the plunger to squirt the foam out. It will be active immediately. Foam has a concentration of N-9 of about 12.5%, which may lead to genital irritation. The applicator may be washed with mild soap and water, stored in a clean, dry place and used again.

Vaginal Contraceptive Film (VCF)
This spermicide comes as a 2-inch by 2-inch sheet of film with a consistency similar to wax paper. Fold it in half, and then in half again and place it on the tip of your index finger and insert the film into the vagina and up near the cervix. You must insert VCF at least 15 minutes before intercourse for it to work effectively. The film will dissolve to a thick gel consistency by absorbing vaginal secretions. Do not place the film on the tip of the penis for insertion as the film will not have adequate time to dissolve and may not end up in the right position. VCF has the highest concentration of N-9, about 28%, which may lead to genital irritation. Use another type of spermicide or another method if you experience irritation.

These are spermicides in a solid form. Brand names you might see in the drugstore include: Encare, Intercept, Koromex, and Semicid. Read and follow the directions on the box. You must allow 10 to 15 minutes for the suppository to dissolve into a foamy substance before having intercourse. Suppositories may be somewhat less effective than foam, cream or gel because it is hard to tell if they have dissolved sufficiently. Because suppositories have a N-9 content of 2% to 8%, some women may experience a sensation of warmth or burning as the suppository dissolves. If this is painful or irritating, use another type of spermicide or another method of contraception. 

What's the difference between oil, water and silicone lubricants?

The only lubricant you should use with latex condoms or dental dams is water-based or silicone-based lubricant. Oil-based products such as Vaseline, mineral oil, baby oil, vegetable oil, cold creams and most hand creams have oil in them that degrades and weakens latex. Mineral oil, a common ingredient of hand lotions, can cause a 90% decrease in condom strength after as little as 60 seconds of exposure, dramatically increasing the chance of leakage or breakage. Water-based or silicone-based lubricants have no oil and don't react with latex. An easy way to tell the two apart is that oil-based lubricants bead water and are difficult to wash off. Water-based lubricants rinse off easily in plain water. If you're not sure, read the label. If you're still not sure, don't use it as a lubricant with latex. 

Where can I find spermicides and lubricants?

The pharmacy in Health Services carries spermicidal foam and jellies, as well as lubricant at prices that are typically 50% cheaper than drug store prices. Click here to check out the pharmacy's hours and stop by to pick some up. Spermicides and lubricants are over the counter products which do not require a prescription.

Lubricant is also available in Health Promotion on the 3rd floor of Health Services and via Ship n SHAG (online ordering of safer sex supplies for Brown students).

Related Links

To learn more about the different types of spermicide, you can visit:

Planned Parenthood

Manufacturer of VCF and Foam

  • 401.863-2794
    Health Promotion
  • 401.863-3953
    Health Services
  • 401.863-6000
    Sexual Assault Response Line
  • 401.863-4111
  • 401.863-3476
    Counseling & Psychological Services
  • 401.863-4111