Can a Birth Control App Actually Prevent Pregnancy?
It’s 2019. There are apps that help you find your parked (ahem, lost) car, track your period, and hire someone to put together IKEA furniture. It really shouldn’t be that surprising that there is now a birth control app. And we're not talking about yet another app that notifies you to take your pill at 3 p.m. every day — this FDA-approved app is an actual form of birth control.
It's called Natural Cycles, and it received the green light from the FDA back in August 2018. The app promises a 93 percent effectiveness rating in preventing pregnancy. With over 900,000 reported users, the app is the first of its kind — but it has also had its fair share of controversies. Thirty-seven women in Sweden with unwanted pregnancies claim to have relied on Natural Cycles, but got pregnant anyways. Representatives from the app have since responded stating no birth control method is 100 percent effective, and Natural Cycles' effectiveness is based on clinical trials.
For the record, it's non-hormonal, and does not control your ovulation. It simply tracks it using an algorithm, which in turn helps the user figure out times where they are more likely to get pregnant.
To get more information on this "digital birth control method," we reached out to the founders, along with a medical professional, to learn how it works.
What Is Natural Cycles?
Created by Swedish physicist Elina Berglund, Natural Cycles is essentially a fertility tracking app that predicts when you ovulate and when you can and can't get pregnant using "basal body temperature." The user must take their basal body temperature first thing in the morning using a BBT thermometer, which shows two decimal places.
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After the temperature is logged into the app, it assigns you "green days," or days when you're supposedly not fertile, and "red days," when you are fertile and can get pregnant, and should either abstain from having sex or use a form of protection when having sex, like condoms. The amount of these days will reportedly vary based on each user.
The user also has the ability to log more information into the app, like sex and period cycle details, so that the algorithm can "get to know your unique cycle," though Natural Cycles says that's not essential.
Why Was It Created?
Berglund says that she developed the algorithm behind Natural Cycles because she was in the personal search for an "effective non-hormonal contraceptive."
"I was a researcher in particle physics at CERN at the time and when looking for such a product, I couldn't find one, but I did find out that the body temperature changes with ovulation, something known for long and well researched," she tells us. "So I used my mathematical and technical skills from CERN to develop the algorithm, to initially use myself. My husband later suggested to make my algorithm into an app such that all women and couples could profit from the innovation, as it quite quickly became clear to us that such an app would fill a huge unmet need among women worldwide."
To create the app, the founders conducted three studies with "independent experts in contraception."
"Two of the clinical studies measured the effectiveness of Natural Cycles as a birth control method and both found Natural Cycles to be 93 percent effective under typical use and 99 percent effective under perfect use (perfect use is achieved when the women do not have unprotected sex on red days). The last study was performed on over 22,000 women, making it one of the largest studies of its kind," claims Berglund.
What's Basal Temperature and Why Is It Used?
According to the Mayo Clinic, your basal body temperature is your body temperature when you're fully at rest. So why is it used to track ovulation?
"When you are not ovulating your basal body temperature is low," explains Dr. Sherry A. Ross, a women’s health expert and author of she-ology.The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period. "But when your basal body temperature raises, this means you are about to ovulate. The Natural Cycles app helps you avoid getting pregnant if you are around or near the time your basal body temperature may start to rise."
So, Is This Essentially The Rhythm Method?
Dr. Ross says this is basically a "fertility companion" to the age-old Rhythm Method of tracking your ovulation to prevent pregnancy. "It makes the old fashion Rhythm Method more interactive and fun to use," she notes. "These types of apps improve the odd against getting pregnant compared to the less tech savvy Rhythm Method."
What Are the Potential Concerns?
While this app could potentially help make the rhythm method or family planning a bit more reliable and offers a hormone-free option, there is still a margin of error, especially if you don't have regular periods. It also does not protect against STIs.
"For women with irregular periods this could be a concern at accurately tracking your basal body temperature and ovulating consistently month after month," says Dr. Ross. "These are variables that make this type of app less accurate in preventing pregnancy." So if you don't have a regular period, Dr. Ross suggests another more reliable alternative.
In an of itself, it's also not 100 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. For reference, the independent studies performed by the app measured it at 93 percent effective, so less accountable than an IUD.
Different factors can affect your basal temperature, and therefore your ovulation report. For more accurate readings, users have to log their personal statistics at the same time at least five times a week, according to Natural Cycles.
The service also comes with a cost. A year subscription with a basal thermometer costs $99.99, while a monthly without a thermometer rings in at $9.99.
As with any birth control method, it's important to fully understand the risks associated with it, and to have a thorough discussion with your doctor before committing.