Birth Control: The Latest Research

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on May 03, 2023
4 min read

Scientists continue to make breakthroughs in pregnancy prevention. Here are some of the most promising contraceptives on the horizon. They may be safer, more effective, or easier to use than current options for birth control.

The FDA in recent years has approved several new birth control methods:

Long-acting vaginal ring. This is the first vaginal birth control ring that you can use for a whole year. The segesterone acetate and ethinyl estradiol vaginal system (Annovera) works like the other vaginal ring on the market that contains the hormonesetonogestrel and ethinyl estradiol (NuvaRing). You wear Annovera for 3 weeks, then take it out for your period. After a week, you’d usually insert a new one. But unlike with NuvaRing, you can reuse Annovera for up to a year. You also don’t need to refrigerate it, which makes for easier storage.

Progestin-only birth control pill. Regular birth control pills combine the hormones progestin and estrogen, which block your ovaries from releasing an egg (called ovulation). Drospirenone (Slynd) is a new progestin-only pill for those worried about estrogen-related health problems like blood clots in your legs.

There are other progestin-only birth control pills (also called minipills) on the market. But they don’t always stop ovulation, plus you have to take them at the same time every day. Slynd prevents conception mainly by preventing your body from releasing the egg (ovulation) during your monthly period. If you miss a dose, you can take a pill as soon as you remember without needing to use a back-up contraceptive.

Hormone patch. There is a second birth control patch on the market. This transdermal patch contains the hormones levonorgestrel and ethinyl estradiol (Twirla). It works like the other available patch, norelgestromin and ethinyl estradiol (Xulane). They both contain the same estrogen but different progestin. Each week for 3 weeks, you place it on your skin, and take it off the fourth week during your period. But Twirla has lower levels of hormones, which may help reduce potential side effects.

Twirla is not approved for women who are obese. The contraceptive may not work as well as it does in women who weigh less. It also may raise the risk for blood clots in those who are obese.

Sperm-killing gel. This hormone-free spermicide gel contains lactic acid, citric acid, and potassium bitartrate (Phexxi). You insert the gel into your vagina up to an hour before you have sex. It’s different from other spermicides because it works with your vagina’s natural pre-sex pH level. This environment makes it harder for sperm to thrive.

Phexxi is less likely to damage the lining of your vagina than other spermicides that use the ingredient nonoxynol-9 (N-9) to kill or paralyze sperm. Less breakdown to your vaginal lining helps protect you from sexually transmitted infections like HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Emergency Contraceptives. If you have unprotected sex, emergency contraception can ensure that your egg won’t be fertilized. Levonorgestrel (Plan B One-Step) and ulipristal (Ella) are two oral options. Plan B is over-the-counter but has to be taken within 72-hours of sex. Ella is a prescription-only drug that can be taken within 5 days of unprotected sex. A copper IUD is a third and most effective option. It must be inserted by a health care professional within 5 days of unprotected sex. 

Researchers continue to explore new ways of preventing pregnancy or to improve on existing options. Here’s a look at some possible future birth control choices:

Hormone birth control for men. Scientists have studied this possibility for years. Recent scientific trials of male birth control stopped early because too many men had side effects like depression and low sex drive. Now, researchers are looking into new compounds that hold back male hormones with fewer side effects. They’re also exploring different forms, like oral birth control and a hormone gel that you apply to your arm.

Redesigned female condom. Some women find these condoms bulky and hard to insert. Researchers are working on a new design. It’s the shape of a tampon, and you put it inside your vagina, where it expands when it comes into contact with vaginal fluid. Studies of the redesigned condom show that 3 out of 5 of those who tried it liked it better than the male condom, and 85% would suggest it to a friend.

Controlled-release copper IUD. Researchers are studying a new type of copper intrauterine device (IUD) that has a copper core wrapped in two types of plastic (polyethylene and silicone). The device slowly releases copper ions to kill sperm headed into the uterus. Standard IUDs quickly release copper ions within a few months. Scientists think a controlled release of copper could ward off some side effects like pain and bleeding.

New patch adhesives. Birth control patches can irritate your skin. Researchers are developing a new sticky substance (adhesive) for hormone birth control patches that could lead to less skin irritation and bond better to your skin.