Sex with Sophie - Spooky Spermicide

Thursday, February 7, 2013


By Sophie Feltes  

        I consider myself to be a highly sexually-educated individual. I do research, read sex columns and listen to podcasts. I frequent sex shops and am not afraid to ask questions of their staff, who tend to know a whole lot more about sex than our pharmacists. And yet, I allowed myself to assume, as so many of us do, that non-hormonal contraceptives such as condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps and spermicides pose little to no health risk. That is until I heard about Nonoxynol-9. This chemical is a detergent present in many cleaning products, cosmetics and hair dyes. It is also the predominant chemical in spermicides and spermicidal lubricants, and was originally marketed as a microbicide, meaning that it was indicated for use in the prevention of STIs and not just pregnancy.

            In the ‘80s this drug was touted as the next big thing in HIV prevention and highly encouraged for both vaginal and anal use, despite never having been tested in the human body. Almost all lubricated condoms contained some concentration of N-9, because as a spermicide and microbicide that in its natural form feels like lube, it seemed too good to be true. It was. Evidence began to mount that the chemical was dangerous, but was denied until a study released in 2000 by UNAIDS found that not only was the chemical ineffective in preventing the transmission of HIV, women using it were up to 50 percent more likely to contract it than people using a placebo. I have to get a little gnarly here I’m afraid. The reason that N-9 increases your risk of contracting STIs is that it literally tears you up. The safety instructions for its use in a lab are as follows: “In case of contact, immediately flush skin with plenty of water. Cover the irritated skin with an emollient. Remove contaminated clothing and shoes. Wash clothing before reuse. Thoroughly clean shoes before reuse. Get medical attention.” I’m sorry, and this drug is still on the market in 2013 as a product to put up your snatch? It is so abrasive that regular use leaves the vaginal wall or anus utterly raw and may also cause lesions. As a result, our bodies essentially send out a party invitation to STIs, especially the extremely thin mucous membranes of the anus that are already more susceptible to HIV transmission. An aside here, this goes to show that the prevalence of HIV within the gay population is not necessarily caused by less responsible sex practices, an unjust stigma, but by a biological vulnerability.

            So, why am I writing an article about an issue that came to light 13 years ago? Not only does N-9 remain visible on our shelves in the form of spermicide, but condom companies are not required to put their ingredients on packaging, and N-9 is far from the only nasty chemical that can be found in them. While most condom companies have removed N-9 from their regular lubricated condoms, they are occasionally snuck in with the hope of the condom getting a higher rating for preventing pregnancy despite the fact that the low levels of N-9 in a condom have long been proven to be ineffective. It is also present in some lubes sold separately. Canada’s regulations on N-9 are more lax than the in the States; believe it our not it is considered in the risk class below contact lenses. The World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and just about every credible health institution on this planet have condemned Nonoxynol-9 and suggested the following warnings:

1)   This product should only be used by women at very low risk for HIV.

2)   This product should not be used more than once daily.

3)   This product should never be used rectally.

I checked out a few pharmacies for this piece, and while some products that I found with N-9 did have one or two of these warnings in small print on the box or an inserted pamphlet, none had  all three and several had absolutely nothing. It’s going to take some effort to ensure that you steer clear of this chemical. Of course you can choose not to buy spermicide, but you might have to call the manufacturer of your favourite rubbers or lube to confirm that they are N-9 free (and please complain about the lack of an ingredient list on condoms while you’re at it!). For me, and I hope for you too, there is no question. This spooky spermicide isn’t coming anywhere near my special space or my boyfriend’s spectacular spunk ever again. 

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