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7 Non-hormonal birth control methods through history

Jen on the roof terrace at Natural Cycles headquarters.

Written by Jennifer Gray

Jennifer Gray

Jennifer Gray is an award-winning writer with more than five years’ experience covering reproductive topics ranging from birth control to planning pregnancy. She is passionate about providing women with accurate information grounded in science they can use to take charge of their own health - while also dispelling myths that exist within the field of women’s health. She holds a Master of Science from the University of Edinburgh and currently lives in Ireland.

For as long as humans have been having sex, we’ve been searching for a way to prevent pregnancy. It’s no surprise then that over the centuries there have been some pretty weird and wacky methods of contraception used. From lemons to crocodile poop, join us as we take a step back in time and revisit some of the natural birth control methods from history.

Before we dive into the eclectic methods our ancestors used in an attempt to prevent unwanted pregnancies, we’ve got to ask that you don’t try these at home! If you’re looking to change contraceptive methods, talk to your healthcare provider for advice. Now let’s take a look at some ancient contraception…

1. Lemons 

It’s said that the lovers of the famous lothario Giacomo Casanova used lemon rinds as a natural cervical cap. This was back in the 1700s when contraceptive options were scarce. Although it makes sense that inserting a zingy citrus fruit into your vagina might make it a hostile place for sperm to hang around in, we can only imagine how that might sting! 

There are multiple sources suggesting that lemon juice has also been used as a natural spermicide through the ages. There have been recorded uses of lemon juice used by women in the Mediterranean for more than 300 years. Sponges or rags would be soaked in fresh lemon juice before inserting them into the vagina. 

Based on these findings, a study in 2016 looked at the effect lemon juice had on sperm and found that semen mixed with lemon juice in fact did become immobilized. While lemons may have some natural spermicidal properties - we don’t recommend putting lemon juice in your vagina!

2. Withdrawal

Of all the methods on our list, the only one that’s remained unchanged for centuries is the pull-out method, also known as withdrawal. This method simply involves removing the penis from the vagina before ejaculation, and it’s so old that there’s even a reference to it in the story of Onan in the Torah and the Bible.

Unfortunately, while it’s an oldie, that doesn’t mean it’s a goodie! Pulling out can be hard to time when you’re in the moment, and it’s also worth noting that sperm is still present in pre-cum, so even when practiced perfectly, there’s still a substantial risk of getting pregnant. The pull-out method is 80% effective with typical use.

3. Crocodile poop

If the thought of putting a lemon near your nether regions made you squirm, this next one’s not for the faint-hearted... In ancient Rome and Egypt, it was commonplace to make birth control out of crocodile dung. While in India they opted for elephant poop instead. The animal dung was often mixed with other substances and molded into an object (known as a pessary) that was inserted into the vagina and removed after sexual intercourse. 

This kind of animal excrement does tend to be on the alkaline side, so like lemon juice, it may alter the natural pH of the vagina and make it hard for sperm to survive. As well as acting as a natural spermicide, the pessary acted as a physical blockage, stopping sperm from entering the cervix. All that said, let’s be glad we don’t have to resort to using animal dung these days!

4. Honey

When Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered back in 1922 archeologists found a wealth of ancient treasures, including a jar of honey. This sweet treat was popular in ancient Egypt and was a symbol of wealth, but did you know it was also used as a contraceptive? When mixed with various plants and substances honey could be used as a natural spermicide. 

The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, which happens to be the oldest known medical text and dates from 1825 BCE, mentions the use of honey with the mineral natron as used by ancient Egyptian women. 

As well as potentially altering the pH of the reproductive tract, honey could theoretically also clog and block the cervix, immobilizing sperm and blocking it from entering the uterus. While honey is considered to have many health benefits - there is very limited research into its use as a contraceptive.

5. Post-coital douching

Another ancient method of contraception we’d love to leave in the past is the post-coital douche. Women in ancient Rome are believed to have douched with vinegar, while in pre-industrial America herbal douching was used as natural birth control. In more recent history, there have even been reports of women douching with coca-cola

Over the years, this messy method has been used as both contraception and STI protection. Spoiler alert: it’s not very effective for either. While women have been flushing their reproductive parts for longer than we’d care to think about, the scientific evidence suggests that douching isn’t very good for you. 

A 2008 study found that douching can lead to increased risks of conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disorder. Furthermore, the vagina is actually self-cleaning, and douching can upset the natural pH and lead to infections and discomfort.

6. Reusable condoms

Today’s condoms are sleek, discreet, and strictly for one-time use. Sadly this hasn’t always been the case. Until Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber in 1839, this method looked (and felt!) very different. 

Early condoms were used across a variety of ancient cultures. These sheaths were made of substances such as animal intestines or linen. Worse still, these early barrier methods were designed to be re-used. They were fastened onto the penis with a ribbon and needed to be cleaned between uses…

Just as the condoms in use today are designed to give us extra protection from sexually transmitted infections, condoms also increased in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries as they prevented the contraction of syphilis. An infection that’s still with us today and can cause serious health problems if left untreated.

Manufactured latex wasn’t invented until 1920 – meaning that contemporary condoms have only really been in circulation for the past 100 years. Today’s condoms come in a variety of colors, sizes and flavors. There are even spermicidal condoms and latex-free versions for those who have an allergic reaction to latex.

7. Fertility awareness methods

One of the oldest methods of birth control is fertility awareness, this isn’t one type of birth control, but rather an umbrella term for a variety of natural options. These methods rely on users following periodic abstinence based on where they are in their menstrual cycle. This typically means avoiding sexual intercourse at certain times of the month. The oldest recording of a period of abstinence was astonishingly in the year 388, making this a top contender for the oldest method of birth control! 

The fertile window is actually only six days long, the 24 hours after an egg cell is released (known as ovulation) and the five days prior to this, as this is how long sperm can survive in the female reproductive system. Fertility awareness methods, such as the Calendar Method, involve counting the days of the cycle in order to work out these fertile days. 

Armed with this knowledge, couples can theoretically predict when ovulation will happen and can choose to abstain from unprotected sex during this fertile time to avoid pregnancy. 

These calendar methods are typically based on the assumption that ovulation happens about halfway through the cycle. Unfortunately, this is a drawback of these counting-based methods, as it is hard to work out exactly when the fertile window - as we know all our bodies are different and cycles can vary from woman to woman. 

That said, knowledge is power and the more we learn about our fertility the more control we have. In 1965, the Symptothermal Method took a more analytical approach, combining changes in basal body temperature with monitoring changes to cervical mucus to create a more specific (if still cumbersome) way of naturally preventing pregnancy.

Natural birth control that’s fit for the 21st century

Thanks for reading up on these ancient forms of non-hormonal birth control. While we’re grateful for the contraceptive choice we have in the modern day, we also want to highlight that for many of us it can still be a struggle to find the right contraception, whether we’re searching for a natural or a hormonal method of contraception

It’s so important that contraceptive advancement continues to happen and every person has easy access to both contraception and information about their reproductive health.

Natural Cycles is the female-founded, non-hormonal, non-invasive contraceptive app that’s FDA Cleared. This natural method was born out of an unmet need for a hormone-free option, it uses the science of the cycle paired with today’s technology to bring you a natural birth control that’s fit for the 21st century. No manual tracking or calculations. Natural Cycles is 93% effective at preventing pregnancy with typical use. Why not find out if it could work for you today?

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