The ABCs of Birth Control - A Beginner's Guide

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By: Catherine Van Wheele

Birth control comes in many different forms from hormonal to non-hormonal and single-use to long-acting. It can be a bit confusing when deciding which option is best for you.

Here is a list of the most popular birth control options young women are using today. 

1. The Condom - The Rain Coat

The condom is perhaps the most well-known way to prevent pregnancy, and it can also prevent the spread of STDs. When used properly, the condom is a very effective method, but keep in mind there is room for human error, and the condom could potentially rip during intercourse making the condom effective 85% of the time.

If you want to avoid contraceptives that contain hormones, or you don’t have easy access to other forms of birth control, condoms are a solid option.

Condoms are widely accessible, a whole box costs only a few dollars, and are sometimes even provided for free by healthcare organizations.

2. The Pill - The Vagina Vitamin

The most used contraceptive is none other than the pill. It is effective 99% of the time when used correctly, and essentially gives your body a small dose of hormones each day that stops ovulation and thickens the vaginal mucus to prevent pregnancy. But when accounting for human error, the pill has 91% effectiveness rate. The main downside to the pill is that you have to take it at the same time each day for it to remain effective, and that can be easy to forget if you are constantly on the go. Our simple recommendation is simply setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to take their pill. You can title your alarm something discreet like ‘Smile’ or something a bit more distinguishable like ‘No kids please’.

The most common side effects of taking the pill include spotting between periods, sore breasts, mood swings, headaches, and changes in appetite. Fortunately, if you experience any negative side effects or want to take a break, all you have to do is stop. It’s as easy as that.

The pill is a good option for people who want to start birth control and don’t know how hormones will affect them. Generally, you have to go to a doctor to get prescribed, but there are online organizations where you can get the pill without an in-person appointment.

3. The IUD - The Secret Cervix Agent

The intrauterine device, or IUD for short, is a tiny T-shaped device that is inserted through your cervix and sits in your uterus.

IUDs are small, discreet, and can last up to 10 years before they need to be replaced. It is one of the best options for those who want something that can be left alone - set it and forget it style. The only maintenance would be checking the length of the string hanging from your uterus each month. It’s also highly effective with 99% effectiveness rate.

You will have to go to a health care provider for the insertion and removal process, but it only takes a few minutes to insert and remove; it is common to experience cramping during the procedures.

There are two types of IUDs: hormonal and nonhormonal. Hormone IUDs work the same as the pill, slowly releasing a small dosage of hormones that prevent ovulation and thicken vaginal mucus. The non-hormonal IUD, however, is made out of copper, which repels semen. Fun fact: the copper IUD can also be used as emergency contraception if it is inserted within 3 days after sex.

4. The Implant - The Robo-Contraceptive

The implant is a small, plastic rod inserted under the skin on the inside of your upper arm. Like other hormonal contraceptives, the implant stops ovulation and thickens vaginal mucus. Once inserted, it can last up to four years with 99% effectiveness, before it needs to be removed.

Once inserted, you can’t usually see the implant, but if you run your fingers over it, you should be able to feel it. The main benefit of the implant is that it doesn’t impede your daily life: bumping or rubbing your implant won’t do anything to it due to its flexible material.

Like the IUD, you will have to go to a health clinic to get it inserted, and it is a great option for people who want a birth control that works long-term without any maintenance. The most common for women to get lighter periods and some stop getting their period altogether. Other side effects are those seen with other hormonal birth control methods.

5. Fertility Awareness - Timing is Everything

Fertility awareness is simply keeping track of your cycle and knowing when you are least and most fertile. Your least fertile days are at the beginning of your cycle when you begin your period, and your most fertile days are the week when you ovulate.

The easiest way to track fertility is with an app, and there are many free options to choose from that can help you track everything from cramps to sore breasts to vaginal discharge and more. This can give you better insight into your cycle. Clue and Flow are both simple, user friendly apps that allows you to track your period for free. Some apps, like Natural Cycles, you have to pay for, although they do provide more advanced and detailed data. 

6. Withdrawal

Withdrawal is when the man pulls out of the vagina before ejaculating. Although this is easy and free (obviously), it is one of the least effective methods with a 78% effectiveness rate. In the moment, people may forget or change their mind about pulling out; there is also often pre-cum prior to ejaculation. Nevertheless, pulling out is better than nothing at all.

There are many other forms of birth control out there. Female condoms, the ring, spermicide, the shot, cervical caps, diaphragms, and tube tying are less common among younger women, but are still highly effective options to look into.

Information on contraceptives is widely available on the internet for further research. A great place to start your research is on the Planned Parenthood website which lists detailed information on all types of birth control.  It is highly encouraged to do your research and consult with a medical professional to consider your options before deciding on a contraceptive that is best for you.


Catherine Van Weele is currently a student at San Diego State University majoring in political science and minoring in economics. She works at her school newspaper, The Daily Aztec, as the opinion editor and also lifeguards at a community pool. She hopes to pursue a career as a labor and employment lawyer. In her free time, Catherine enjoys sun bathing at the beach and trying out small local coffee shops.