Everything to Know About the Birth Control Patch
Thinking About Getting the Birth Control Patch? Here’s Everything You Probably Wanna Know
It’s basically the pill’s super convenient sister.
By Kara Cuzzone
Is it me, or did they totally gloss over the birth control patch when we learned about contraceptive methods in high school health class? Like, I remember getting lots of info on the pill, condoms, and IUDs, but I can’t remember a single mention of the patch.
The same goes for TV commercials. I’ve seen tons of different ads for arm implants, IUDs, and even vaginal rings—but never one for the birth control patch. Maybe the fact that it’s not really talked about explains why only about 11 percent of women have ever tried the patch, according to the latest survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. But since it’s a perfectly legit birth control option, I, for one, would like to get more informed. So I did some research.
I learned a lot, but let’s start with the basics: According to the FDA, the birth control patch is a thin Band-Aid-like square (I’m paraphrasing here) that you stick onto your upper arm, upper back, lower abdomen, or butt once a week (If you want a monthly period, you can skip the patch on week four, per Planned Parenthood). With typical use, it’s about 91 percent effective at preventing pregnancy.
The major appeal of this method is that unlike a pill, which you have to remember to take on a daily basis, you only have to think about applying a new birth control patch once a week, says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine.
Wanna learn more? Below, some important stuff to know about the birth control patch before you give it a go.
1. The patch is very similar to the pill.
Fun fact: The patch provides the exact same combination of hormones—estrogen and progestin—that most birth controls pills do. And they work the exact same way, says Dr. Minkin. In both cases, the hormones stop the ovaries from producing eggs and thicken the cervical mucus to prevent sperm from getting to any eggs. The only difference with the patch is that the hormones are absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream, rather than through the digestive system.
2. There are a couple of different patch brands to choose from.
The most commonly used birth control patch is called Xulane, which has been around since 2014. In February of 2020, the FDA approved a second brand, Twirla. The Twirla patch is very similar to Xulane, but contains a slightly lower dose of hormones, Dr. Minkin explains. Ultimately, you should talk to your gyno to make a decision on which brand is best for you.
3. You have to be careful about where you place the patch.
Unfortunately, you can’t just slap the patch on wherever you want. Annoying, I know. But as I mentioned earlier, the FDA recommends applying it to your upper arm, upper back, lower abdomen, or butt. According to Xulane’s site, you should avoid putting it on your breasts, places where tight clothing rubs, and areas where you have cut or irritated skin. You also want to place it in a slightly different spot each week to keep your skin from getting irritated.
4. The patch has the same potential side effects as the pill.
Headaches, sore boobs, moodiness, nausea—all the side effects you’ve heard people can get from the pill are the same with the patch, says Dr. Minkin. The only way to know for sure whether you’ll experience them is to give the patch a try. And, on the plus side, there are some potentially good side effects too…
5. The patch can make your period lighter and less crampy.
If you have really painful, heavy periods, you might want to consider using the patch. The hormones in it can reduce cramping and make your flow lighter, Dr. Minkin. FWIW, this effect isn’t unique to the patch, though. Other types of hormonal birth control like the pill or the vaginal ring can make your periods less terrible too.
6. You don’t have to worry about getting the patch wet.
Go ahead, swim laps, take a nice long shower, or soak in a bubble bath seven nights a week if you want. The patch is designed to stay on even during swimming, so you really don’t have to worry about it falling off, Dr. Minkin says. If you’re particularly unlucky and it does happen to fall off, just apply a new patch right away, she says.
7. You can ask your doctor or pharmacy for an extra patch.
If you’re super paranoid about your patch falling off before it’s time to apply the next one, just ask your doctor or pharmacist to get you an extra patch, Dr. Minkin suggests. That way, you know you’re covered in the event that it does somehow come off before the week is up.
8. You can use the patch to skip your period.
It turns out it’s really easy to skip your period with the patch. In normal use, you’re supposed to apply the patch once a week for three weeks in a row, then skip the fourth week so that you’ll have your period. If you’d rather go period-free, just apply a new patch every single week with no breaks, says Dr. Minkin. (Just make sure your doc is aware that this is what you want to do, so they can prescribe accordingly.) As long as you’re ok with some breakthrough bleeding every few months, you can keep skipping your period as long as you’d like, she adds.
9. Depending on when you start the patch, you could be protected against pregnancy right away.
You can start using the patch at any point in your menstrual cycle, but if you apply it for the first time during the first couple days of your period, you’ll be protected against pregnancy right away, Dr. Minkin says. Any other time of the month, you’ll want to use a backup method of contraception (like condoms) for a week to make sure that you’re fully protected.
10. Forgetting to apply a patch is similar to forgetting to take a pill.
If you get to the middle of a week and realize you haven’t changed your patch, don’t panic. Just put a new patch on as soon as you remember and use a backup method of birth control for a week, says Dr. Minkin. It’s very similar to what you’re told to do when you forget to take a birth control pill or two.