'Natural' Birth Control: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Nivin Todd, MD on December 23, 2022
6 min read

Looking for a more natural birth control method? You’ll want to know what the options are, what’s involved, and drawbacks you should consider -- including that these may not be as effective at preventing pregnancy as hormonal and surgical types of birth control. 

Your partner will need to be on board, too. These methods won’t work unless you’re both committed. 

These methods are based on your own body -- no devices, no meds. They’re free or low-cost, safe, and can be quite effective when you use them the right way. But that’s not always easy to do.

The basic idea is to predict which days of the month you’d be most likely to get pregnant. You’ll skip sex on those days. 

If you have a regular cycle and stick with your fertility awareness method perfectly, your odds of getting pregnant could be less than 5%. But the odds could be as high as 24% if you don’t use these methods perfectly, especially if your periods are irregular. 

For comparison, your pregnancy odds for typical (not perfect) use of other birth control methods are:

  • 18% if you use only the male condom
  • 12% with a diaphragm
  • 9% if you take birth control pills or use a contraceptive patch or vaginal ring
  • Less than 1% if you get an implant or use an IUD

Examples of fertility awareness include the rhythm method, the standard-days method, checking your cervical mucus, and using your basal body temperature. To increase their effectiveness, you can use more than one of these methods at a time.

All of these methods involve keeping track of your monthly fertility cycle. You’re most likely to get pregnant around the time you ovulate (when your ovary releases an egg) each month. After it’s released into your fallopian tubes, an egg can be fertilized for about 24 hours. Sperm can live for 5 days.

If you find out which days you’re fertile using tools like your basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and a calendar, you can avoid having sex then, making you less likely to get pregnant.

But it may not be easy to get it right. Everyone’s cycle is different, and it takes time to understand yours.

This strategy takes a lot of homework. You’ll need to track your period for 6-12 months before you start. Then, you use that information and do some math to figure out when you’re fertile.

After you have you tracking information, you’ll use this formula:

  • Subtract 18 from the number of days in your shortest cycle.
  • Count that many days after you start your period. That’s your first fertile day.
  • Subtract 11 from the number of days in your longest cycle.
  • Count that many days from the start of your period. That’s your last fertile day.
  • Don’t have sex on or between your first and last fertile days.

There are apps for this. But for this method to work, you have to be very good at tracking. That may not be easy because it’s common for cycles to vary slightly. 

This is like the rhythm method, but simpler. It sets the same days (days 8 through 19) as the fertile time for everyone. That makes it easier to use.

You can use an app, a calendar, or a color-coded set of beads to track where you are in your cycle. It works best if your cycle is more than 26 days or less than 32.

Keep in mind that date-tracking methods like the standard days and rhythm methods will be much less effective if you don’t have a regular menstrual cycle. Medical conditions like thyroid disease, eating disorders, excessive weight loss or gain, strenuous exercise, and illicit drug use may cause your cycles to become irregular.

This plan involves checking the mucus from your cervix at certain points in your cycle.

Just after your period, there’s very little mucus. When you’re ovulating, there can be a lot. You can also notice changes in its texture or color throughout your cycle. All of these clues may help you know when you’re ovulating.

Cervical mucus on your fertile days can look clear, slippery, and stretchy, like egg whites. You can use a tissue or your fingers to check it several times a day. It’s best to keep a chart so you can see the patterns in your cervical mucus from one cycle to another -- and know when you should skip sex.

Another way to tell when you’re fertile is to keep a daily chart of your temperature. You use a device called a basal body temperature thermometer at the same time every day.

When you ovulate, your temperature may go up almost 1 degree F. It’s also good to pay attention to other symptoms you might be having, like sore breasts, backaches, or bloating.

But you still can’t know precisely when you ovulate by this method. If you have an illness that causes fever, are stressed, drank alcoholic beverages the night before, have traveled to a different time zone (and are thus waking up at different times), or slept in a warmer or colder room than usual -- all these things may affect your basal body temperature. That can also make this method harder to use.

One way to avoid pregnancy is not to give sperm a chance to meet an egg. When you use this method -- also called “pulling out” – your partner pulls their penis out of your  vagina before they ejaculate.

That takes a lot of self-control. Because that doesn’t always happen, there’s a 22% chance of getting pregnant if you use this tactic.

Even if pulling out is successful, this method may not work. Before ejaculation, a pre-ejaculate fluid is discharged from the penis. This fluid may contain a small amount of sperm and could cause pregnancy. 

This approach works only for the first 6 months after giving birth -- and only if you haven’t gotten your period yet and exclusively breastfeed your baby; no formula and no bottles at all. (But keep in mind that you ovulate before your period comes, so you could be fertile and not know it.) 

You’ll have to nurse at least every 4 hours during the day and every 6 hours at night. (Pumping doesn’t count!) This keeps your body from releasing an egg.

Some studies have shown that if you follow these guidelines exactly, breastfeeding can be 98% effective in preventing pregnancy.

Some herbs are touted as ways to avoid pregnancy. But there’s very little research to back up those claims. And the FDA hasn’t approved any of them.

You may have heard of:

  • Neem
  • Castor bean
  • Gossypol (for men)
  • Thunder god vine (for men)
  • Evodia
  • Wild carrot (Queen Anne’s lace)
  • Turmeric
  • Ginger
  • Mango seed

These herbs are said to either:

  • Keep your body from releasing an egg
  • Prevent sperm from fertilizing the egg
  • Block the fertilized egg from implanting in the womb

But there’s very little research to back up those claims or about how well they work. Some herbal methods are toxic. So you should talk to your doctor first about what’s safe.

You might also hear about home remedies that are thought to help you avoid pregnancy. Unfortunately, none have been found to be effective, and many can be harmful. Among methods that people around the world have tried are:

  • Douching with vinegar, soap and water, alcoholic beverages, cola, or even disinfectant. These methods don’t work and can lead to irritation, infections, or chemical burns. 
  • Inserting lemon slices in the vagina after sex. This can irritate tissues and lead to imbalances in the natural bacteria in your vagina. It doesn’t kill sperm, either.   
  • Jumping up and down after sex. While this won’t harm you, it also won’t do anything to prevent pregnancy. 
  • Putting a piece of a kitchen sponge in the vagina before sex. Only sponges sold as contraceptives help to prevent pregnancy. (That’s because they contain spermicide.) Using a kitchen sponge this way also puts you at risk of infection.

Using plastic bags or Popsicle wrappers as condoms. Not only are they ineffective, but these can also be uncomfortable and lead to abrasions or rashes.