Can Your Chosen Birth Control Method Expire?

Birth control is an essential part of a healthy sex life. While it has the obvious benefit of helping you to control whether or not you want to conceive, this is only one of the many advantages of using birth control. For example, some methods provide protection from STIs, while others can regulate your period and in some cases even show signs of combatting acne, according to Nationwide Children's Hospital.

It is important that you get all your facts straight before picking the best method of birth control for you. You want to make sure it gives you enough protection while also taking into consideration how often you are sexually active and with how many partners, whether your selection is practical for regular use, and whether there are any potential side effects you should be aware of. And once you've gotten all that figured out, it's also important that you know the length of time your chosen method remains safe and effective to use.

Thankfully, you have quite a few contraceptive alternatives to choose from, so you can be sure to pick a method you are comfortable with and that best suits your needs. Your choices broadly fall under two types: hormonal and non-hormonal. Each of these options provides a different mode of protection, so how can you figure out which birth control is best for you — and for how long?

Your hormonal birth control options

Hormonal contraceptives are birth control methods that use synthetic hormones, similar to the ones naturally produced in your body, that prevent pregnancies by stopping ovulation. If you're looking for the lowest possible likelihood of pregnancy, the hormonal method might be your best friend. The most common of these methods is the daily "pill," which has a 99% success rate, per Planned Parenthood.

If you want a short-acting method that you don't have to remember every day, you can try the contraceptive shot (injected every three months, often by a medical professional) or the patch (which comes in packs so you can reapply weekly for three weeks at a time). Then there's the vaginal ring, which is a flexible plastic ring placed inside the vagina that has the same hormones as the pill, according to WebMD. It remains in place for 21-day intervals, separated by seven ring-free days, and provides birth control for up to 12 months in a row.

Longer-acting options for hormonal contraception include the IUD, which can stay functional inside the body for three to eight years depending on the type, and the implant — a plastic rod inserted into the upper arm that can remain for up to three years. Both long-acting options can be removed before their lifespan is up if you no longer wish to use them.

Non-hormonal birth control methods

Generally, non-hormonal barrier methods are some of the most commonly used birth control practices and include condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps, and contraceptive sponges. These methods work by literally stopping the semen from entering the vagina and are known to have low but not insignificant pregnancy rates with perfect use, according to Medical News Today. Spermicides are non-hormonal as well, and they work in two ways, Cleveland Clinic explains: They obstruct the cervix's opening and also chemically weaken sperm, impairing its movement toward the egg. Similarly, vaginal gels like Phexxi also inhibit sperm movement, both by direct obstruction and moderating vaginal pH (via GoodRx).

For longer-term birth control, there are several non-hormonal options, too, like the copper IUD and sterilization. Since these approaches do not guard against STIs like some other non-hormonal methods, proceed with caution — it's like wearing a raincoat but forgetting your umbrella and getting soaked anyway. The copper IUD can provide protection from pregnancy for up to 10 years, but if you're looking for a type of birth control that has no expiration date, sterilization might be the best way to go, according to the Family Planning Handbook.

Unless you're aiming for permanent birth control, though, your method of choice will have a shelf life. Your healthcare provider will explain the lifespan of medically-executed methods, like injection, implant, IUD, and sterilization, at the time of administration. But what about birth control you're responsible for using at home?

When does your chosen contraceptive expire?

Dr. Katharine O'Connell White, who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology, tells Refinery29 that while birth control pills typically expire in one to five years, "most medications are still effective after their expiration date," so you probably don't need to can it the moment it expires if you aren't able to replace it right away. But it's a dangerous gamble, so you may want to limit intercourse or use backup protection.

For many hormonal methods, it is important not to confuse expiration date and duration of use. For example, Planned Parenthood states that the vaginal ring will last for one year after you first put it in — assuming you do so on or before the expiration date on the box. Similarly, with methods like the patch, always check that you've started using it by the package's date.

As for tools such as barriers, vaginal gels, and spermicide, you will also typically see an expiration date printed on the package, and the effectiveness will start to dip significantly past this date, Healthline warns. Spermicide maxes out at about two years, depending on the brand, while Phexxi has a shelf life of four years. Meanwhile, you should change your diaphragm every one to two years, advises Medical News Today, and condoms have an average life expectancy of three to five years depending on brand and storage (keep them away from sharp objects — obviously — but also away from heat and humidity). If you find that any method of birth control has expired, always be conscientious about your choices until you get a fresh supply.