What is the Contraceptive Sponge?
The contraceptive sponge is a small, disposable polyurethane foam device that contains absorbed spermicide. It is soft, circular, and about two inches in diameter. Before intercourse, the sponge must be inserted deep into the vagina, and placed over the cervical opening in order to kill sperm before they enter the uterus and fertilize an egg. In the United States, the only brand of contraceptive sponge that is available is the called the Today Sponge.
How Does the Sponge Work?
The sponge prevents pregnancy by keeping sperm from contacting the female egg. This is accomplished in two ways:
- The sponge, designed to cover the cervical opening, or “os,” bis first moistened with water and then inserted into the vagina, which blocks sperm from entering the uterus and prevents fertilization.
- Spermicide that is absorbed in the sponge is continually released, which decomposes sperm and prevents them from moving towards an egg.
Efficacy is an important and common concern for women when choosing a method of birth control. Like any other type of contraception, the contraceptive sponge is most effective when used correctly.
The sponge is most effective for women who have not had children. Women who have given birth naturally may have stretched cervixes because theirs dilated so the baby could pass through the vaginal canal. The cervix may also have been cut or torn during birth, leaving behind scar tissue that can misshape the cervix. Even postpartum after the cervix shrinks back from its dilated state, it may be slightly misshapen and seldom returns to its unpregnant size. The varieties of shapes and sizes that the cervix may take can make attaining a good fit with the contraceptive sponge more challenging. As a result, the cervical sponge is most effective for women who have not previously given birth.
If women who have never given birth rely on the sponge and spermicide alone for contraception and always use it as directed (also called the “perfect use”), 9% will become pregnant each year. If women who have never given birth rely on the sponge and spermicide alone for contraception and do not always use the sponge as directed (referred to as “typical use”,) 12% will become pregnant each year.
Women who have given birth previously have a higher risk of contraceptive failure while using the sponge. If women who have given birth rely on the sponge and spermicide alone and have perfect use, 20% will become pregnant each year. If women who have given birth rely on the sponge and spermicide alone and have typical use, 24% will become pregnant each year.
A male partner can make the sponge more effective at preventing pregnancy if he uses a latex condom or withdraws his penis before ejaculation. Remember, without the use of a latex condom, the contraceptive sponge cannot protect you from sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
How to Use the Sponge
With a bit of practice, the sponge is easy to use and can be inserted or removed from the vagina without difficulty.
Inserting the Sponge
- Before inserting the sponge, wash your hands to prevent the introduction of germs into your vagina.
- Wet the sponge thoroughly with at least two tablespoons of water to activate the spermicide–do not use saliva.
- Gently squeeze the sponge until it is foamy. This will activate the spermicide once the sponge is completely wet.
- Fold the sides of the sponge away from the removal loop to make it narrow. Place the sponge in your vagina with the dimpled side of the sponge going in first.
- The sponge will unfold and cover the cervix once released. You should be able feel that the cervical sponge is situated flush against the cervix. The string loop side should be facing out so that it tightly covers the cervix. Slide your fingers around the edges of the sponge to check its orientation and fit. The walls of your upper vagina will hold the sponge in place.
How Long Should the Cervical Sponge Be Left In?
Insert the sponge no more than 24 hours before sexual intercourse. It must be left in place for least six hours after intercourse, so the spermicides have the opportunity to kill the sperm. During this time, you are protected from pregnancy even if you have intercourse more than once. It should not be left in place for more than 30 total consecutive hours. Once you remove the sponge, you will no longer be protected against pregnancy.
Removing the Sponge
To remove the sponge from your vagina, follow these steps:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before inserting your fingers into your vagina.
- To remove the device, pull the sponge out of your vagina using the string loop. If the sponge turns upside down, slide your finger around the edge of the sponge to find the loop, or grasp the edge of the sponge with two fingers and gently pull out. If the sponge sticks to the cervix, use your finger to lift the sponge away from the cervix on one side.
- After removal, check to make sure that you have removed the entire sponge.
- Throw the sponge away.
- On the rare chance that you cannot remove the sponge or you remove only a portion of it, contact your doctor.
Reminder: Use each sponge only once. Always discard a used sponge in a waste container. Do not flush a used cervical sponge down the toilet.
The contraceptive sponge is a safe, convenient, and simple method for preventing unwanted pregnancies. The sponge can be purchased at a drugstore without a prescription and does not require a fitting by a healthcare professional. With practice, inserting and removing the sponge will become simple.
Many women like the contraceptive sponge because of the following factors:
- It is small, portable, and inexpensive.
- It can be purchased at most drugstores or pharmacies.
- Wearers do not need to see a doctor before using the contraceptive sponge (this method requires no fitting nor professional insertion or removal).
- Can be inserted up to one day before sex and does not interrupt sexual spontaneity.
- Wearer can have intercourse an unlimited number of times without having to remove or reinsert the sponge.
- It is discrete and confidential—your partner does not have to know you are using it.
- It provides the opportunity for women more to discover about their own anatomy.
- It is a reliable form of contraception when used correctly and consistently.
- It can be used during breastfeeding.
Like many other types of birth control, the contraceptive sponge is not without risk, and has it disadvantages. Some women may reject this method of birth control because of the following factors:
- It may be difficult for some women reach their cervix, so the sponge may be difficult to insert and remove properly.
- It may cause vaginal irritation.
- It can increase the risk for urinary tract infection, toxic shock syndrome, vaginal infection, or inflammation of the cervix.
- The spermicide in the contraceptive sponge can make performing oral sex on the wearer unsavory; many people have complained about the “numbing” effect of the sponge.
- The sponge may make sex messy because of the liquid required to activate the spermicide.
- The sponge can also cause sex to be too dry because the sponge may absorb some of the females vaginal secretions. Using a water-based lubricant can help alleviate such dryness.
- The spermicide absorbed into the sponge may contain nonoxynol-9, which has certain risks. If used by one person multiple times a day for an extended period or by those at risk for HIV, the spermicide may irritate vaginal tissue and increase the risk of contracting an STI or HIV.
Is the Sponge Right for You?
Women who have intercourse fewer than three times per week and older women with low fertility may find the sponge to be a good choice for preventing unwanted pregnancies. Couples who have intercourse frequently (more than three times per week) may discover that the sponge is less effective than will couples who have sex less often, largely resulting from inconsistent and incorrect use. The contraceptive sponge is more effective for women who have not had children, while women who use the sponge after they have given birth have lower success rates. Also, some couples may find the spermicide within the sponge to have an unpleasant taste, and they may want to refrain from oral sex when using this method of contraception.
The sponge may not be the correct contraceptive choice for you if you:
- Are uncomfortable with touching your vagina
- Are allergic to sulfa-based drugs or are irritated by polyurethane or spermicides
- Have recently had a childbirth, abortion, or miscarriage
- Have a vaginal, uterine, or cervical infection
- Have a history of toxic shock syndrome.
Do not use the sponge if you have any type of vaginal bleeding. This can increase your risk of toxic shock syndrome. To minimize this risk do not leave the sponge in place longer than 30 hours.
Toxic shock syndrome is a rare but life threatening complication of various types of bacterial infections. Often toxic shock syndrome results from toxins that are released by staph or strep bacteria. Notify your physician immediately if you experience any symptoms of toxic shock syndrome. These symptoms include aching muscles and joints, diarrhea, dizziness, fatique, sore throat, sudden high fever, red and stingy rashiness, vomiting, or weakness.
The cost of one packet of three contraceptive sponges typically ranges from $9-$15, but prices may vary depending on your city of residence. Prices for the Today Sponge in particular range from $10.90-$19.00 per pack and are available at drugstores, online, in some supermarkets, and at family planning clinics.
Click here to compare the efficacy of this method of contraception with other methods of birth control in our contraceptive chart!
1. “Birth Control Sponge (Today Sponge).” Birth Control Sponge. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://www.plannedparenthood.org/health-topics/birth-control/birth-control-sponge-today-sponge-4224.htm>.
2. “Today Sponge – Vaginal Contraceptive Sponge.” Today Sponge. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://www.todaysponge.com>.
Last Updated 14 May 2014.