Guys, your morning routine is pretty simple, right? You get up and brush your teeth, shower, and maybe shave (depending on how that scruff is working for you). But in a few years—depending on where you are in life—you could be adding another step to your daily beauty regime: rubbing a birth-control gel on your shoulders.
In fact, a couple of guys living on the West Coast already began adding that new step at the end of last year as part of a worldwide clinical trial of a new form of birth control for men. About 420 couples from seven countries will participate in this groundbreaking study of a male birth-control gel conducted by National Institutes of Health (NIH), which could pave the way for a much-needed addition to men’s birth control arsenal.
Why is this kind of exciting?
“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.”
But since the study is set to run through fall of 2021—meaning the gel won’t be sitting on your bathroom counter any time soon—let’s talk about what it is, how it works, and why we even care.
How does the male birth-control gel work?
The contraceptive gel is composed of two hormones, progestin and testosterone, which work to inhibit hormone processes in the testicles and the production of functioning sperm. “That’s why it works, because sperms require all that testosterone inside the testicle,” Dr. Stephanie Page, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine who’s leading the trial, told Business Insider.
It takes about eight to 12 weeks for the gel to kick in and is administered in a single pump, applied to each shoulder once a day. Men are encouraged to apply the gel after they shower and to wait about four hours before swimming or bathing again. Study leaders also instruct men to wash their hands after applying the goop and to wear a shirt to prevent kids or partners from absorbing the gel’s hormones. Couples participating in the study will use back-up protection during the first 20 weeks of the testing, and if a drop in sperm-count production is determined, will then rely on the gel as their only form of birth control for the remainder of the 52-week trial.
Unlike the much-heralded and now derailed male-birth control pill, one of the factors that has allowed testing on the gel to move forward is the lack of negative side effects (at least so far). Complaints about other new forms of contraception for guys ranged from hair loss and nausea to a dive in the old libido department. The new gel, apparently, causes none of those unfortunate issues.
Why a new male birth-control method is a big deal
Let’s face it: Up until now, preventing pregnancy has been mostly a woman’s responsibility. Nearly all the forms of birth control readily available—patches, pills, rings and implants—are geared towards women. If the male birth-control gel proves successful, it will be the first addition to the male contraception tool-belt in decades (right now you’re looking at condoms, a vasectomy or the ultra-risky rhythm method). Women even opt to get their tubes tied more than men get vasectomies, even though tubal ligation is a riskier procedure and takes longer to recover from.
Not only would it be a relief to let men take on some of the contraceptive burden in relationships, but also a lot of women have negative reactions to the hormone-based birth control methods available.
“Many women cannot use hormonal contraception, and male contraceptive methods are limited to vasectomy and condoms,” study investigator Dr. Diana Blithe said in a statement from the NIH. “A safe, highly effective and reversible method of male contraception would fill an important public health need.”
Why social media gave it some serious side-eye
When the gel was first announced, some women gave it serious side-eye on social media, since its delivery method requires it to be rubbed into a man’s back and shoulders to work. “Why,” some women were thinking, “am I dealing with the side effects of hormone fluctuations or wrestling with IUDs and my partner basically needs to get a massage for his contraception method to work?”
“Male birth-control is going to be rubbing a gel on your shoulders?! Nah y’all can swallow a pill every single night, get injections & implants like the rest of us,” tweeted one woman.
The rub (pun intended), is that men need to apply the gel themselves since there is a risk of their partners’ absorbing the hormones and affecting their own gynecological functions. In fact, this application method is what’s got some leading medical professionals questioning the future success of the birth-control gel.
“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?”
Vasectomy vs. Contraceptive Gel
Even if the NIH study proves successful, many men will still have to choose the contraceptive method that is right for them. While it’s too soon to predict what the efficacy of the new gel might be, it’s safe to say that there will be some room for user error, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. Condoms, when used correctly, are about 85 percent effective, which is only awesome if you kind of don’t want a baby. If you are 100 percent sure you don’t want to be a dad (or are done having kids), then a vasectomy is right for you (since it’s, like, 99 percent effective).
If you do choose the vasectomy route, know that you’ll need to use a backup contraceptive method for the first couple of months after the procedure to make sure all residual sperm have left the building. How do you know the coast is clear? SpermCheck is a handy over-the-counter kit that lets you measure your sperm count in the comfort of your own home.
“The goal of the whole field of male-contraceptive development is to try and create choices for men and for families,” Page, who’s been working on male-birth-control solutions for roughly a decade, previously told Business Insider.
Whatever birth control method you choose, the development of a new male contraceptive gel is good news for anyone looking for a better way to keep from getting pregnant. And if it’s as easy as rubbing some gel on your shoulders, that just might be worth adding two extra minutes to your morning routine.