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Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010

Sponges: Birth Control, Menstrual Product, or Both?

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From the "Questions People Ask at the Tool Shed" files: This week, we had a customer query us about the different functions a sponge can perform in the vagina. Yes! In addition to serving as a household cleaning tool, sponges can also prevent pregnancy and take the place of a tampon! However, sponges are not interchangeable; you must buy a product that is specifically designed for a particular use.

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 waste.

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 way.

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.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them tolaura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

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.