The Beginner's Guide to Barrier Methods

What to Know About These Contraceptives

Diaphragm. Jenny Swanson/E+/Getty Images

You've already heard about condoms, but do you know about these other contraceptives called barrier methods? Like condoms, barrier methods prevent the passage of bodily fluids from one person to another. Here's what to know about condoms and other types of barrier methods.

Male Condom

The male condom is a sheath placed over the erect penis before penetration, preventing pregnancy by blocking the passage of sperm.

Because they act as a mechanical barrier, condoms prevent direct vaginal contact with semen, infectious genital secretions, and genital lesions and discharges.

Most condoms are made from latex rubber, while a small percentage are made from lamb intestines (sometimes called "lambskin" condoms). Condoms can also be made from a type of plastic called polyurethane, which is a good alternative for people who are sensitive to latex. Except for abstinence, latex condoms are the most effective method for reducing the risk of infection from viruses that cause AIDS, other HIV-related illnesses and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Female Condom

The female condom consists of a lubricated polyurethane sheath shaped similarly to the male condom. The closed end, which has a flexible ring, is inserted into the vagina, while the open end remains outside, partially covering the labia. The female condom, like the male condom, is available without a prescription and is intended for one-time use only.

It should not be used together with a male condom because they may slip out of place.


A diaphragm is available only by prescription and must be sized by a health professional to achieve a proper fit. It is a dome-shaped rubber disk with a flexible rim that covers the cervix so sperm can't reach the uterus.

Before inserting the diaphragm, you must apply a spermicide cream or jelly as an extra precaution. A diaphragm will protect for six hours after it is inserted.

For intercourse after the six-hour period, or for repeated intercourse within this period, fresh spermicide should be placed in the vagina with the diaphragm still in place. The diaphragm should be left in place for at least six hours after the last intercourse but not for longer than a total of 24 hours because of the risk of toxic shock syndrome. The diaphragm can be effective when used properly, but has a higher failure rate than oral contraceptives.

Cervical Caps

A silicone cup shaped like a sailor's hat, a cervical cap is inserted into the vagina and over the cervix. The only available brand available in the U.S. is FemCap. A cervical cap should be used with spermicide cream or jelly for optimal effectiveness. Like all forms of birth control, it is most effective when used properly, and is 86 percent effective in preventing pregnancy for women who have never been pregnant or given birth vaginally.

For women who have given birth vaginally, the cervical cap is 71 percent effective.

Dental Dams

Originally used in dental procedures, dental dams are small, thin and square pieces of latex that can be used for oral sex. They help reduce transmission of STIs by acting as a barrier to vaginal and anal secretions that may contain bacteria and viruses.

The Sponge

The contraceptive sponge is soft, round piece of plastic foam that is about two inches in diameter and contains spermicide. It is inserted deep into the vagina before intercourse and has a nylon loop attached for removal. The Today Sponge is the only brand available on the U.S. market. It is a safe, easy-to-use and cost-effective form of contraception.

The Barrier Method Bottom Line

There is a barrier method for every preference. Whatever form of birth control you select, keep in mind that they are only effective when used properly. (Note: Only dental dams and condoms are recommended agents of HIV transmission prevention.)


Birth Control Sponge (Today Sponge). Planned Parenthood.

Cervical Cap (FemCap): Is this Birth Control Effective? Planned Parenthood.

Dental Dams. Brown University Health Promotion.

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