Barrier Contraceptives for Women

Cervical Barrier Methods: About the Diaphragm, Cap, Sponge, Female Condom, & Lea's Shield

Cervical barriers are woman-initiated birth control devices that are durable, affordable, and simple to use. Some are reusable and others are disposable. Cervical barriers are a safe and practical choice for women who cannot or chose not to use hormonal contraceptives, such as implants, contraceptive injections, and oral contraceptive pills — methods that are typically not recommended for women over 35 or smokers.

These methods of contraception involve covering the opening of the uterus, or cervix, with a synthetic cup filled with spermicide. Before commercial contraception was readily available, many women used a small piece of natural sponge filled with vinegar; it wasn't very effective, but it helped. In the 1920's, modern women used diaphragms made of metal, put in place by a doctor and left there for 3-4 week at a time. The current latex diaphragm, cervical cap, female condom, Lea's Shield, and contraceptive sponge have replaced these early methods. If put in place before sex, cervical barriers do not interrupt sexual activity, and all except the female condom may be used without a partner's knowledge.

How Cervical Barrier Methods Work

Cervical barrier methods work in two ways: by providing a physical barrier to semen, and by killing sperm before they can enter the uterus and fertilize an egg. After intercourse the diaphragm, cap, Lea's shield, or sponge must be left in place for about six hours. These methods may provide considerable protection from sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and certain pre-cancerous conditions of the cervix.

Placement of the Diaphragm versus Cervical Cap

The diaphragm (right) covers a much larger area than the cervical cap (left) or sponge.

How Effective are Barrier Methods of Birth Control?

The reliability of these methods varies widely, even among women who receive good education about their use and utilize them consistently. For couples who have intercourse frequently, more than three times weekly, these methods may be less effective. Women who have intercourse infrequently, or whose fertility is low because of age, will find barrier methods reasonably reliable. Women who have had children will find these methods less effective.

How Safe are Barrier Contraceptives?

Women who use these methods of contraception are at higher risk of vaginal infection, urinary tract infection, and possibly toxic shock syndrome. For this reason, none of these should be left in place for more than the recommended length of time (see table below); and, neither the cap nor sponge should be used during menstruation. However, all these methods are relatively safe compared to hormonal methods, like oral contraceptives, which may have drug-related side-effects and health risks.

Barrier Method Comparison Table

Barrier Contraceptive Availability Composition Length of Wear Life Span Failure Rate* Failure Rate*
Cervical Cap Prescription Only Silicone 6-48 hours 1 year 1 in 7 women annually 1 in 3 women annually
Diaphragm Prescription Only Latex 6-24 hours 2 years 1 in 6 women annually 1 in 6 women annually
Female Condom No Prescription Polyurethane Plastic 8 hours 8 hours 1 in 4 women annually 1 in 4 women annually
Lea's Shield Prescription Only Silicone Rubber 8-48 hours 1 year 1 in 5 women annually 1 in 3 women annually
Sponge No Prescription Foam 24 hours 24 hours 1 in 6 women annually 1 in 3 women annually

*for women who have not given birth

Related Articles

About Spermicides

List of Contraceptives

Different Kinds of Contraceptives


The information provided on is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her health professional. This information is solely for informational purposes and does not constitute the practice of medicine. We encourage all visitors to see a licensed physician or nutritionist if they have any concerns regarding health issues related to diet, personal image and any other topics discussed on this site. Neither the owners or employees of nor the author(s) of site content take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading this site. Always speak with your primary health care provider before engaging in any form of self treatment. Please see our Legal Statement for further information.