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What’s in This?: Spermicidal Gel

All nine ingredients in this tadpole annihilator, explained (yep, even nonoxynol-9)

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on) themselves with the help of an expert.

This edition: Conceptrol Vaginal Contraceptive Gel (aka spermicide), which is made from nine separate ingredients that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear online.

The Ingredients

1) Nonoxynol-9: The active ingredient found in most spermicides, nonoxynol-9 attacks the acrosomal membranes of the sperm (which help sperm penetrate the egg), causing the sperm to become immobilized. But it comes with an unfortunate side effect: If used improperly — e.g., more than once a day; for anal intercouse; with multiple partners or with a partner who has HIV — nonoxynol-9 can actually increase a person’s risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

“Nonoxynol-9 is a detergent, and what that means is that it disrupts the layers of the cell membranes,” Michael Rosenberg, a former researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NPR. “When you use it frequently, it can actually erode a lot of the cells that are present that help protect against these diseases.” For that reason, it’s crucial that products containing nonoxynol-9 are used only as directed.

2) Lactic Acid: Occurring naturally in the vagina, lactic acid restores and maintains the natural acidity of the region, in addition to treating and preventing bacterial growth. Sperm also can’t survive in an acidic environment, which is an added bonus in this case.

3) Methylparaben: This ingredient is widely used for its antifungal and preservative properties. The scientific community has gone back and forth on whether or not parabens like methylparaben are carcinogenic: In 2004, molecular biologist Philippa Darbre found small concentrations of parabens in breast cancer cells, which raised concerns about their use in many products. Subsequent studies exploring this connection, however, deemed parabens to be non-carcinogenic. Subsequent studies to those studies found parabens to be (you guessed it) carcinogenic. The debate continues!

4) Povidone: This is frequently used within the pharmaceutical industry to disperse and suspend drugs (like nonoxynol-9) evenly throughout the product for optimal effectiveness.

5) Propylene Glycol: As Sharad P. Paul, skin-care expert, skin-cancer surgeon and author of The Genetics of Health told us in our exploration of the ingredients found in strawberry-flavored lube, propylene glycol, which acts as a humectant (that is, it keeps moisture in the skin) and a preservative, has a bad reputation among consumers since it’s a main ingredient in antifreeze. But it’s used there in a much larger dosage than would ever be found in something meant to be consumed by the public. As such, the FDA and Paul claim that the small amounts found in many foods (Betty Crocker Chocolate Fudge Cake Mix); beverages (Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey); pharmaceutical (Colgate Total Toothpaste); and cosmetic products (Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser) don’t warrant concern.

6) Water (Purified): Generally used as a solvent, purified water is just water that’s been distilled or deionized (i.e., demineralized) to remove impurities like bacteria and microorganisms.

7) Sodium Carboxymethyl Cellulose: Also known as cellulose gum, sodium carboxymethyl cellulose is a common thickening agent. Consuming large amounts of it may add bulk to your stool and have a laxative effect, according to the FDA, so, uh, don’t chug this stuff straight from the bottle?

8) Sorbic Acid: A preservative used for its antimicrobial properties, sorbic acid is on the FDA’s list of “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, substances.

9) Sorbitol: A sugar alcohol often used as a sweetener in lieu of actual sugar, sorbitol is also frequently used in gel products because of its ability to retain moisture and prevent them from drying out. Studies show that it’s an effective laxative and can cause diarrhea, bloating, gas and abdominal pain. But again, a bit of sorbitol in spermicidal gel won’t do you any harm.

The Takeaway

Considering the potentially devastating effects of nonoxynol-9, using this product correctly is vital. But even then, 18 out of every 100 women who use spermicide as their go-to birth control method become pregnant each year, so for that reason, we suggest pairing it with another method — like condoms — for maximum protection against pregnancy. You’ve been warned.