Although 99% effective at preventing pregnancy when used perfectly, according to the NHS, hormonal birth control methods come with a slew of negative side effects for many women: weight gain, mood swings, and decreased libido, to name a few. Depression, migraines, and anxiety are a few more. Plus, more and more women are reporting problematic symptoms when they stop using it, such as an inability to get their period back or painful cramps (both of which were probably masked by the birth control).
Lately, women have been ditching oral contraception methods and even IUDs in favor of something much more natural: tracking their cycles, and avoiding having sex on the days when they’re most likely to get pregnant. This is most commonly done through an app (thanks, technology), and one of them was even approved by the FDA. One scroll through Instagram will tell you just how popular these apps are, particularly among influencers in the wellness world—but are they actually effective, or will this new birth control method result in a series of unwanted pregnancies? Let’s take a closer look.
The benefits of using an app to track your cycle.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an OB/GYN who will say you shouldn’t get familiar with your cycle. And in that sense, a birth control app is a fine idea. “I’m all for using an app to learn more about how your body and cycle work,” says Dorene Marinese, MD. “Some people have PMS symptoms, and knowing when those may occur can help in managing them. This type of app may also help women figure out when their period will start, and then they can be more prepared.” Mary Jane Minkin, MD and clinical professor of OB/GYN at Yale University, adds that these apps can also be helpful when you’re trying to get pregnant and want to know when you’re ovulating.
What you need to know about using an app, if preventing pregnancy is the goal.
Unfortunately, even in 2019, easy, affordable access to birth control is more a privilege than a right in the United States. It's infuriating. More than 19 million women live in "contraceptive deserts," which means they do not have access to the full range of contraceptive methods (as an aside, this digital health platform launched to try and help). The 2016 census reported that 27.3 million Americans are living without health insurance, and while you don’t need health insurance to track your cycle on an app, you do need to have quite a bit of time to follow and keep track of it, not to mention a smartphone to download it.
And even if you do have those things, an app probably isn’t super-effective when it comes to pregnancy prevention, which is particularly scary in a world where access to abortion is becoming more and more limited. “An app is better for preventing pregnancy than no birth control at all, but not as good as long-acting reversible contraception like oral birth control, the IUD, implant, or injection. These are less dependent on human error and don’t depend on our cycle length, which can change from month to month,” says Marinese.
Plus, if preventing pregnancy is really the goal, using an app requires a level of dedication beyond just checking in with it regularly, which brings us back to the privilege conversation. “For natural birth control to be effective, you need to take your temperature in the morning immediately upon waking—you have to do it before you do anything else,” she adds. “This may be challenging for some people to accomplish, like people who work night shifts or who are busy and just can’t remember to take their temperature first thing in the morning.”
What you need to know if you really want to use natural birth control methods.
You don’t need to rule out natural birth control methods entirely, but because women’s cycles can change from month to month, there are other methods that can be more effective. “If you want to find out when you are ovulating, a much better—and more scientific—way to do it is to use an ovulation predictor kit, like the First Response kit, which will let you pinpoint ovulation,” explains Minkin. “If you use these kits for several cycles in a row, you will get a good idea of when you ovulate. Now, of course, any cycle can be off—you could always ovulate a bit earlier or later, which is why if you are looking for excellent contraception, you should consider an IUD or birth control pill.” She adds that she would only recommend a natural birth control method to someone who would be fine with getting pregnant. “I’ll tell couples they should consider using one of these apps if they would prefer not to use a contraceptive method and wouldn't mind getting pregnant, and perhaps a bit earlier than they planned.”
Is a birth control app more effective than no birth control at all? Absolutely. But natural birth control methods are also time-consuming and require sticking to a strict schedule. The conclusion is, pretty much, you have to figure out what works best for you (mind and body), and the best way to do that is talking to a doctor. As of now, no method is perfect. Let's hope for more research on behalf of women's reproductive and sexual health, yeah?
Before making any changes to your medication or methods of birth control, make sure to talk to your personal doctor.