What are barrier methods of contraception?

by | Babies and Pregnancy, No Silly Questions, Sexual Health

General Information

Barrier methods of contraception work by stopping a man’s sperm from reaching a woman’s eggs. There are two main types: condoms or sheaths (used by a man), and diaphragms or caps (used by a woman).


Condoms are used to avoid unwanted pregnancies and to reduce the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, such as chlamydia, genital herpes, hepatitis, gonorrhoea, syphilis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Condoms are put on over a man’s erect penis before sex.

A woman taking an oral contraceptive pill is only protected against pregnancy, not sexually transmitted infections. For safer sex, a condom should be used as well.

The chance of becoming pregnant while using a condom is 2 to 10%, depending on how carefully it is used.

Diaphragms or caps

Diaphragms or caps are inserted high into the woman’s vagina to cover the cervix (the opening of the womb) and stop the man’s sperm from entering the womb. To work properly they need to be used with a spermicide, which kills sperm.

Diaphragms or caps only give limited protection against sexually transmitted infections. The chance of becoming pregnant while using a diaphragm or cap is 4 to 20% if it is used correctly, including using a spermicide.

Diaphragms and caps come in different sizes and must be fitted by an experienced doctor or nurse. The fit must be checked at least once a year and after pregnancy, vaginal surgery or if you lose more than 3 kg in weight.

See Your Pharmacist or Medical Professional

What to do if barrier contraception methods fail

  • if your barrier contraceptive was used incorrectly or became dislodged, you may become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection
  • you may want to think about using emergency contraception. There are 2 types of the Emergency Contraceptive Pill (ECP) that can prevent an unwanted pregnancy if the woman takes it within the appropriate timeframe (within 72 hours or within 120 hours) since unprotected sex. The ECP can be sold by pharmacists; you don’t need a prescription. The pharmacist is required to record the supply of the ECP, and every pharmacy is different in how your personal and confidential information is documented. The ECP is also available from your doctor, Family Planning Clinic or sexual health clinic
  • an intrauterine contraceptive device (IUD) can also protect against pregnancy if a woman has it fitted within five days of unprotected sex. See your doctor, Family Planning Clinic or sexual health clinic for information
  • if you have had unprotected sex and are worried you have been exposed to sexually transmitted infections, see your doctor, Family Planning Clinic or sexual health clinic.

How to use a condom 

  • if you haven’t used a condom before, read the instructions so you use it correctly
  • always check the expiry date and store condoms away from heat and sunlight to prevent damage
  • remove condom from packet carefully to avoid tearing
  • condoms are more likely to tear during use if the vagina is too dry, so use a water-based lubricant
  • don’t use oil-based lubricants, such as baby or cooking oils, Vaseline or butter, because they quickly damage the condom
  • some products used for vaginal thrush can also damage condoms, so if vaginal thrush treatments are being used, ask your pharmacist for advice
  • spermicides are no longer recommended for use with condoms as they have been linked to an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections
  • some people are allergic to latex rubber; non-latex condoms are available

How to use diaphragms or caps

  • a diaphragm or cap must always be used in combination with a spermicide
  • the device (diaphragm or cap) should be inserted before sex and left in place for six to eight hours afterwards. Do not go swimming, take a bath or use a douche during this time
  • if sexual intercourse occurs more than two hours after the device has been inserted, an extra applicator of spermicide should be put in the vagina before intercourse
  • after removal, the device should be washed and dried
  • the device should be inspected regularly for damage
  • some products used for vaginal thrush can damage diaphragms and caps, so if vaginal thrush treatments are being used, ask your pharmacist for advice
  • the device should be re-fitted after pregnancy, vaginal surgery and weight changes of more than 3 kg.

Treatment Options

Condoms (latex)

Without spermicide
e.g. Ansell range, Durex range, Lifestyles range, Four Seasons range, SKYN range

  • suitable lubricants include Ansell Personal Lubricant, Durex Play, K-Y Jelly, Lifestyles, SKYN

Condoms (non-latex)

Without spermicide
e.g. Durex Avanti, SKYN

  • non-latex condoms are suitable for people with latex allergies and are made from materials including polyurethane and polyisoprene

  • Durex Avanti condoms are safe to use with water and oil-based lubricants

Diaphragms or caps

  • see your doctor or Family Planning Clinic to discuss having a diaphragm or cap fitted


e.g. Ortho-Gynol

  • spermicides should not be used alone, as they do not give sufficient protection against pregnancy
  • use spermicides with diaphragms or caps
  • spermicides provide only limited lubrication

More Information

Availability of medicines

  • GENERAL SALE available through pharmacies and possibly other retail outlets.
  • PHARMACY ONLY available for sale through pharmacies only.
  • PHARMACIST ONLY may only be sold by a pharmacist.

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