Sponges: Birth Control, Menstrual Product, or Both?
At the store, we carry Sea Pearls Sea Sponge Tampons,
along with a number of other reusable and eco-friendly menstrual products. Sea
Pearls are just what they sound like: sustainably harvested sea sponges that
are inserted into the vagina to absorb menstrual blood. They can be washed,
air-dried and reused for about six months. Women generally choose to use Sea
Pearls either to avoid the dioxins or synthetic fibers that are found in
commercially produced tampons, or to reduce the waste generated by disposable
tampons. One does sacrifice some effectiveness to go natural; sea sponges are
less absorbent than commercial tampons and best worn with a pad or panty liner
to catch leaks. For some, that trade-off is worth it to reduce chemicals and
Our customer's question
was whether Sea Pearls could also be used to prevent pregnancy. There is a
product available, the Today Sponge, that is designed as a contraceptive. This
may be the origin of this question. However, the two should not be confused—Sea
Pearls are NOT designed as a birth control device and should not be used that
The Today Sponge is, in
some ways, the opposite of Sea Pearls. It is a synthetically produced sponge
that is impregnated with spermicide and essentially works like a disposable
diaphragm. So, for those looking to avoid chemicals and disposable products,
the Sponge might not be a good choice. However, for women who don't want to or
can't use hormonal birth control, who have sex only occasionally (for example,
those in a long-distance relationship), or who want a contraceptive that
doesn't require a trip to the doctor, the Sponge might be a good choice. It's
sold in the family planning section of most drugstores, and you don't need a
prescription to get it. It's inserted into the vagina, near the cervix, and
works by both absorbing semen and killing sperm with its built-in spermicide.
You can insert it ahead of time, leave it in for up to 24 hours, and have sex
as many times as you want during that period. After use, you pull it out and
throw it away.
The Sponge is less
effective than hormonal methods at preventing pregnancy; its effectiveness rate
ranges from 84% to 91% depending on whether it's used correctly and
consistently. Effectiveness can be improved by using the Sponge in combination
with a condom. For some people, spermicide can cause irritation, urinary tract
infections (UTIs) or an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, so
be on the alert for UTIs, burning, redness or itching and stop using the Sponge
if these occur.
This should go without
saying, but I'll say it anyway: You can't substitute household sponges for
either menstrual use or contraceptive use. Leave those in the sink.
I think both types of
sponges are good products and, although they might not be for everyone, really
fill an important niche for women.
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Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.