The Patch for Birth Control: 8 Things an Ob/Gyn Wants You to Know

Don’t want any devices in your bod? The patch might be more your style.

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If you dislike taking birth control pills every night but aren’t ready to have something inserted or implanted in your body, the patch might be a good compromise for pregnancy prevention.

And you’d be in good company: Use of the patch to prevent pregnancy had increased from less than 1 percent in 2002 to 10 percent in 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

If you’re considering the patch for contraception, here is what you should know, according to ob/gyn and maternal fetal medicine specialist Kecia Gaither, MD.

  1. The patch works similarly to the Pill. They both use a combination of hormones—estrogen and progestin—to prevent pregnancy.  The hormones thicken the cervical mucus, making it harder for sperm to enter the uterus, and prevent ovulation. The difference is that the patch is transdermal, meaning your body absorbs the hormones through the skin.

  2. You change it once a week. Unlike the Pill, which you take every day, the patch lasts a full week. You apply a new patch each week, until the fourth week of your cycle. This is when you get your period, so no patch is needed. ( FYI, it’s safe to skip your period by simply applying another patch. Here’s how to skip your period on the patch.) The patch can go on your upper arm, belly, buttcheeks, or back—but not on your breasts.

  3. It’s about 91 percent effective. “When used correctly, that number jumps to 99 percent,” says Dr. Gaither, “but with typical use the pregnancy protection is a little lower.” That’s because there’s always a risk of forgetting to apply the patch at the proper time or of the patch falling of. Speaking of which...

  4. Make sure the patch doesn’t fall off. This happens only 5 percent of the time, but this is the biggest reason some women don’t have success with the patch, according to Dr. Gaither. The patch can get wet, but avoid using lotions or creams near the patch site, as they can loosen the adhesive. Oh, and that adhesive is actually where you’ll find all the hormones, so it’s essentially to stick it back on.

  5. The patch may be less effective in overweight women. Researchers have found that body weight may impact the effectiveness of some birth control methods—namely emergency contraceptive pills—and  are still iffy about whether it affects the Pill or patch. Until doctors have a definite answer, they recommend an alternative method if you have a BMI over 25 (or are over 198 pounds).

  6. The patch has a higher risk of deep vein thrombosis. However, the overall risk is still pretty low—and even lower than your risk while you’re pregnant. Talk to your doctor about the best birth control option for you if you have other risk factors for DVT.

  7. The patch has other benefits. Like other hormonal birth control methods, the patch can make your periods lighter, less painful, or more regular, and they can cut down on pesky acne flare-ups. The patch can even reduce the risk of certain cancers.

  8. But it also has side effects. These are rare, but side effects include skin irritation near the patch, breast tenderness, headache, and breakthrough bleeding. Like all birth control methods containing estrogen, you should find a different method if you have a risk of blood clots, high blood pressure, breast cancer, or serious migraines, as the patch may aggravate these issues.

Not sure if the patch is right for you? Here’s what to know about IUDs and myths about the Pill you can safely ignore.