Over-the-Counter Birth Control

Medically Reviewed by Murtaza Cassoobhoy, MD on March 12, 2023
4 min read

If you want to avoid pregnancy without a prescription from your doctor, you can buy several types of birth control in stores. Most pharmacies and grocery stores offer a few options.

Which one is best for you depends on what you’re comfortable with, as well as your lifestyle and your relationship.

A male condom is a thin, stretchy covering worn over the penis during sex. They're usually made of latex. But there are other types for people with latex allergies. Condoms are cheap and easy to use. You can buy them in many different sizes and shapes.

To prevent pregnancy, wear a condom for the entire time you have sex. They also help you avoid sexually transmitted infections, or STIs.

Among couples who use condoms, about 14 in 100 will get pregnant within a year. That's with "typical" use, meaning they may not use them the right way every time.

A female condom, or internal condom, is made of synthetic latex with a flexible ring on both ends. It’s like a male condom, but fits inside the vagina.

The ring on the closed side of the condom is put in the vagina to keep it in place. The other ring is open. It's left outside the vagina to help you take the condom out. Female condoms also protect against STIs, if used correctly.

Female condoms aren't quite as effective as male ones. In a year of typical use, about 21 out of 100 women will get pregnant.

You can buy spermicide as a cream, foam, film, gel, tablet, or suppository. A spermicide uses chemicals to kill sperm or stop it from getting into your uterus.

You put spermicide into your vagina before sex. If you're using a film or tablet, you need to insert it 10-30 minutes beforehand.

Spermicide alone doesn't work very well to prevent pregnancy. In a year of average use, 28 out of 100 women will get pregnant.

People usually use it as extra protection along with another kind of birth control, like a condom. It won’t protect you from STIs.

The contraceptive sponge, or birth control sponge, is a disk made of foam. You put it far up into your vagina to protect your cervix from sperm. The sponge contains spermicide for extra protection. But it doesn't keep you safe from STIs.

The contraceptive sponge should stay in your vagina during sex and for 6 hours afterward. But don't leave it in for more than 24 hours.

A strap on one side of the sponge makes it simple to take out. You throw it away after you remove it.

How effective it is depends on whether you've had a baby before. About 12 out of every 100 women who've never given birth will get pregnant during a year of normal use. For women who've given birth, that goes up to 24 out of 100.

If you had sex without using birth control, or your birth control failed, you may want to use emergency contraception to avoid pregnancy. You can get some types of emergency contraception pills, known as morning-after pills, at most pharmacies without a prescription.

These pills work by keeping you from ovulating, or slowing down your ovulation. They won't protect you from an STI.

You can use morning-after pills up to 5 days after unprotected sex. But they work best when you take them as soon as possible.

Emergency contraception shouldn’t be used as a regular birth control method. It’s meant to be taken only when you need it.

Even with perfect use, no birth control method is foolproof.

To avoid pregnancy, use birth control every time you have sex. Don’t remove your birth control early or wait to start using it after you begin having sex.

Make sure you check the expiration date, look for any damage, and follow the instructions closely.

Lubricant can help you stay comfortable during sex and keep birth control, especially condoms, from breaking. Use water-based or silicone-based lubricant, instead of an oil-based one, so your condoms don’t rip. Products like baby oil, petroleum jelly, and cooking oil may cause your condom to tear.

Oral contraceptives are among the most popular forms of birth control in the United States. You need a doctor's prescription for combination birth control pills, which contain both estrogen and progestin. But progestin-only pills, also called the "minipill," are available over the counter.