The Contraceptive Sponge

The contraceptive sponge is a small, soft sponge made of plastic foam that is inserted into the vagina before sex in order to prevent pregnancy.

It contains spermicide, which is a substance that helps prevent pregnancy by stopping the man’s sperm from moving about and swimming towards your uterus, where it can fertilise an egg.

You can’t reuse the same sponge. But, once it’s in, you can use one sponge for a total of up to 24 hours. Just make sure you leave it in for at least 6 hours after the last time you have sex.

You mustn't keep a sponge inside your vagina for more than 30 hours at a time.

Dr Clair Grainger

Medically reviewed by

Dr Clair Grainger

Last reviewed: 12 Dec 2019

How Does it Work?

The contraceptive sponge prevents you from getting pregnant in two ways:

  • by covering the cervix (the entrance to your uterus) and blocking the sperm from getting in and fertilising one of your eggs
  • by releasing spermicide which slows the sperm down and stops it from swimming towards your egg

The contraceptive sponge will not protect you from sexually transmitted infections or diseases, like chlamydia or syphilis. Use a condom in order to reduce your chances of getting an STD when having sex with a new partner.

Who Can Use it?

The contraceptive sponge is perfectly safe to use for most sexually active women but is not the most effective method of contraception. It is no longer available in the UK but may be available in some other countries.

However, this doesn’t mean it’s suitable for everyone. The contraceptive sponge might not be safe for you to use if:

  • you are allergic to spermicide or any of the other known ingredients
  • have had physical trauma or pain problems with your vagina
  • find it difficult to use tampons or touch your vulva and vagina
  • have recently given birth, miscarried or had an abortion
  • have a history of toxic shock syndrome (TSS)
  • have an infection on your reproductive tract

Talk to your doctor or nurse before buying the sponge to check whether or not it’s safe for you to use.

How Do You Use it?

The sponge is easy to use. Always follow the instructions that come with your sponge, or that your doctor or nurse have given you.

Otherwise, the directions for use are as follows:

Insertion: With clean hands, wet the sponge with at least two tablespoons of water. Give the sponge a gentle squeeze to make sure it’s wet all over (spermicide only becomes active when the sponge is totally wet).

Fold the sides of the sponge away from the loop at the bottom so it’s easier to insert. Using your fingers, insert the sponge by gently pushing it into your vagina, as far as is comfortably possible.

The sponge will unfold once you let go of it with your fingers. Once it’s in, you can check it’s position with your fingers, making sure your cervix is covered and you can still feel the little loop at the bottom.

When to insert it: You can put a sponge in up to 24 hours before having sex.

How long to use it: The sponge can be used for up to 30 hours at a time. It must be left inside your vagina for at least 6 hours after having sex. So, if you put it in long before sex, remember to subtract this time from your total time of 30 hours.

For example, if you put it in 6 hours before sex, you can then leave it inside your vagina for another 24 hours before taking it out.

During the time it’s inside your vagina, you can have sex as many times as you like, as long as you leave it in for at least 6 hours afterwards.

Removal: The sponge has a small nylon hoop at the bottom that you can pull when you need to remove it.

Your sponge shouldn’t ever break into pieces when you’re taking it out. If it does this, contact a nurse or doctor to help you remove it all and to get emergency contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

When to use it: You shouldn’t ever use the contraceptive sponge if you’re on your period, or have any form of vaginal bleeding. Wearing the sponge while you’re bleeding could increase your chances of getting toxic shock syndrome. If the sponge irritates you or your partner's genitals this can increase the risk of STI transmission.

Using it again: You can only use a contraceptive sponge once. It isn’t reusable. Throw your sponge away in a waste container (not down the toilet) and use another sponge the next time you have sex.

How Effective is the Sponge?

Though it is not commonly used any more as there are more effective, convenient contraceptive methods, there are many benefits to using the contraceptive sponge:

  • most women find it easy and simple to use
  • it’s non-hormonal (doesn’t contain any hormones)
  • it’s convenient
  • you can use it at home - by yourself - it doesn’t need to be inserted by a nurse or doctor
  • it’s portable, so you can carry it around with you
  • you and your partner shouldn’t be able to feel it during sex
  • it’s safe to use during breastfeeding
  • it doesn’t interrupt sex

The best way to work out whether or not any contraception is right for you is to try it out for yourself. Negative side effects of the sponge can include:

  • some women might find it difficult to insert or remove the sponge
  • it can irritate the vagina or vulva
  • some women find it makes sex too dry

How Effective is it?

As with all birth control methods, the contraceptive sponge is most effective when it’s used properly. Make sure to follow the instructions or directions for use that come with the sponge, or are given to you by your nurse or doctor.

There is no current UK data in regards to the effectiveness of the sponge as it is no longer available in the UK. Planned Parenthood in the USA however advise that the sponge is more effective in women who’ve never given birth before:

  • 9 out of 100 women get pregnant when using it (properly) every year
  • 12 out of 100 women every year get pregnant who don’t always use it properly

In women who’ve already had a baby or given birth, the sponge is less effective:

  • 20 out of 100 women who use it (properly) get pregnant every year
  • 24 out of 100 women who don’t always use it properly get pregnant every year

Overall, the sponge is less effective at preventing pregnancy than male or female condoms, the oral contraceptive pill, or long acting reversible contraception (such as the contraceptive coil or implant).

Where Can You Get a Contraceptive Sponge?

This is no longer available routinely in the UK, though it is available in some other countries still. 

Are There Any Health Risks?

The contraceptive sponge is very safe and carries few health risks.

It shouldn’t ever be possible for you to lose it up your vagina. If you find your sponge is stuck, or you’re really having trouble taking it out, contact your local nurse or doctor to have it removed.

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a very rare but serious syndrome. To lower your risk of getting TSS:

  • never wear your sponge for more than 30 hours
  • don’t use the sponge immediately after giving birth, having a miscarriage or an abortion – wait until your nurse or doctor tells you it is safe to use it again
  • never wear your sponge when you are having your period or any form of vaginal bleeding

If you ever experience symptoms of TSS, take out your sponge immediately and contact your nurse or doctor. Symptoms of TSS include:

  • flu-like symptoms (sore throat, high fever, aching muscles)
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling weak, faint or dizzy
  • a rash on your skin like sunburn
  • a high temperature
  • confusion
  • difficulty breathing

The contraceptive sponge can also contains a spermicide called nonoxynol-9, which can irritate the lining of your genitals and increase the risk of STIs or HIV in people at risk. If you are at risk of HIV or an STI use an alternative contraceptive method.


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