By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
Nov 30, 2018 @ 5:00 pm
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In the realm of birth control for men, the choices are slim — condoms and a vasectomy are about all that’s on the table (unless you count the less-than-foolproof pull out method). Women, on the other hand, have an array of options ranging from the pill to IUDs to vaginal rings to diaphragms. (Because of this, they often bear the brunt of responsibility when it comes to family planning.)

But that’s about to change, according to a new study that’s being conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effectiveness of a male birth control gel. According to Bloomberg, the study involves 420 couples who will test a gel that contains a combination of two types of hormones that work to thwart the production of sperm. Bonus? The gel, which is applied to a man’s back and shoulders, is expected to keep a man’s libido intact, according to a news release.

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So, yeah, it seems like a pretty sweet deal.

“This gel would be the first user-controlled method of contraception for men since the introduction of the condom,” Diana Blithe, chief of the contraceptive development program at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said in a news release, according to Bloomberg. “We hope it will be an acceptable form of contraception that couples will want to use.”

What do experts think?

Dr. Lakeisha Richardson, a Mississippi-based board-certified OB-GYN, said she’s excited by the possibility of a male birth control gel, adding that it gives men “another option for pregnancy prevention besides condoms.”

The gel would also be a solid option, Richardson says, given that no birth control method is 100 percent effective.

“Therefore, using a male birth control in combination with female birth control could help reduce the unplanned pregnancy rate in the United States,” she adds. “Also, given the rate of failure with condoms — when used in conjunction with male birth control — males can be more confident about preventing an unplanned pregnancy.” 

It’s true: Condoms are approximately 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy when used properly, according to Planned Parenthood, but the possibility of human error takes that number down to about 85 percent. Of course, if you’re looking for even more effectiveness, there’s always sterilization (in a man’s case, a vasectomy) which has a less-than-one-percent failure rate. But that’s only an option if you are seeking a permanent birth control option.

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How does this all work?

The men will apply the gel daily for four to 12 weeks in order to determine possibly harmful side effects, according to ABC News. From there, if sperm levels have not shown enough of a dip, then they would continue using the gel until the 16-week mark. And then if sperm levels indicate the gel is an effective form of contraception, the men would begin a 52-week trial where “the couple will rely on the male partner’s application of the gel as the sole method of contraception,” according to a news release.

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But that last part proves one of the possible caveats of the gel: The men have to apply the gel on their own in order to keep someone else — their female partner, for instance — from absorbing the hormones during application.

“The application of this gel to the back and shoulders of the man — which is supposed to be done by himself — seems potentially problematic from a physical and logistical standpoint,” Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent and practicing OB/GYN, told ABC News. “How can someone reach their own back and shoulders well enough to assure transdermal penetration of [the] hormones?”

She added: “Also, if the woman applies this to the man, she may absorb those hormones, which would and could impact her gynecological functioning.”

Better Together

Richardson says that if the gel is approved, she’s interested to see how it will work in terms of efficacy, especially when combined with other methods.

“The effectiveness of any birth control method can be improved when used in combination with a male birth control option,” she said.

Which sounds like a definite win-win.