Choosing the right birth control method can be a daunting task, but it’s a choice that every sexually active woman will make in her lifetime. More than 99 percent of sexually active women aged 15-44 have used at least one contraceptive method. Birth control comes in hormonal and non-hormonal forms; some of the most easily accessible and reversible hormonal options are the Pill, the Patch, and the Ring. It’s important to be choosy with birth control—each option has advantages and disadvantages, and making an informed decision will help you find the best fit for your body, needs, and lifestyle.
The Pill, unlike the name implies, isn’t just one type of pill. The beauty in using a pill as your method of contraception is that this oral contraceptive comes in hundreds of brands that all contain different doses of hormones. If one doesn’t work for your body or if cost is an issue, there are plenty of other options to try.
The Pill can be broken down into two categories: combined oral contraceptives that contain synthetic estrogen and progesterone, and the progesterone-only pill (otherwise known as the POP or “mini-pill”). Both pills release hormones which cause ovulation to stop. No ovulation means there isn’t an egg for sperm to fertilize, thereby preventing pregnancy. Not only that, but the Pill also thickens the lining of your cervix, making it a lot harder for sperm to pass through.
Pros of the Pill include its effectiveness in preventing pregnancy as it is 99 percent effective with perfect use and 91 percent with typical use (which takes into account human error). On the Pill, you can choose to have your period every month, every three months on an “extended cycle,” or skip your period altogether. Remember to take it exactly as directed! Along with preventing pregnancy, it is often prescribed for treating acne, as well as managing menstrual cramps and other conditions. It is also convenient—the Pill is discreet, easy to swallow, highly effective, and doesn’t get in the way during sex.
However, in order for the Pill to retain its superb level of efficacy, it must be taken daily at a consistent time. This is especially important to remember for women on the POP, as it should be taken within a 3-hour time window in order to protect against pregnancy. There are plenty of strategies to keep you on time! Try setting a cell phone alarm or pairing the time you take the Pill with another part of your daily routine, like taking it right before you brush your teeth in the morning. For women with busy lifestyles and a million other things to remember besides birth control, the Pill may not be your best option—consider something more long-acting that doesn’t require a daily reminder.
Need a “set it and forget it” option? The Patch might be for you. Like the combination pill, the Patch contains estrogen and progestin to stop ovulation and thicken the cervical lining. Unlike the Pill, it doesn’t require a strict daily regimen—the Patch is a once a week affair. It can be stuck safely anywhere on the torso (excluding your breasts), upper arm, or the butt.
Many women prefer the Patch because they don’t like swallowing pills or are uncomfortable with the risk of missing a daily dose. The Patch gives peace of mind in that you only need to remember to change it once a week. It’s also nearly as discreet as the Pill, as it’s no more obtrusive than a square adhesive bandage.
The downside of the Patch is that there’s only one type and one dose of hormones. XulaneⓇ is currently the only FDA-approved contraceptive patch on the United States market, which means you won’t have options on price. If the cost is prohibitive or the hormone dose is not the best option for your body, you may want to consider choosing a different birth control method.
The Ring is a combined hormonal vaginal ring that is small, flexible, and easy to use—just as simple as inserting a tampon—and it’s 91 percent effective with typical use. Many women love the convenience of the Ring, given that it only needs to be inserted once a month. This makes it a popular option for those who don’t like the daily regimen of a pill, or even the weekly patch change. The Ring also has a relatively low dose of hormones, meaning it may result in fewer side effects than the Pill or the Patch. Other pluses of the Ring include the choice to have or skip your monthly period, and the fact that it can be removed during sexual intercourse for up to three hours and then reinserted to avoid any discomfort for yourself or your partner.
The Ring is a great option for women who are familiar with their bodies, but may not be best if you aren’t used to inserting an object into your vagina or if tampons cause discomfort. It may also increase the risk of vaginal infection, so watch for an increase in yeast infections or abnormal discharge. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see a medical professional for evaluation.
A Quick Note on STDs
The Pill, the Patch, and the Ring, while very effective at pregnancy prevention, do not protect against STDs. Make sure to use barrier methods, like female or male condoms, with sexual partners and remember to get routinely tested. Shannon DeVita, Doctor of Nursing Practice at The Pill Club, suggests talking to your partner about their sexual health history before you engage in sexual activity.
Missed Your Birth Control? Don’t Sweat.
While missing a dose of your birth control can be nerve-wracking, the Emergency Contraceptive (EC) pill is an option you can keep on hand and use when needed; you should take it as directed within 72 hours of unprotected sex. EC pills such as Plan B are available over the counter and are FDA approved and safe. EC pills aren’t abortion pills, and taking them won’t affect female fertility, end a current pregnancy, or harm a developing fetus. If it’s been more than three days since you had unprotected sex, Ella (ulipristal acetate pill) or Paragard (copper IUD) can be used as emergency contraception up to 5 days after unprotected sex—these options must be obtained via prescription and a visit to your doctor.
Make sure to read labels on over-the-counter emergency contraceptive options, and consult with your pharmacist or physician if you have questions. Remember that EC should not be used as your primary method of birth control—that’s what consistent hormonal options like the Pill, the Patch, and the Ring are for.
The Pill Club is the first all-in-one telemedicine service prescribing and delivering birth control across the US. Backed by Stanford physicians, we’re a healthcare startup providing access to contraception with delightful birth control care packages featuring free gifts and samples. The Pill Club currently offers prescription and delivery of select birth control methods. Sign up today to get your birth control delivered for free.