This contraceptive app could be your new preferred birth control method—but is it the best option for birth control?

By Lauren Phillips
August 13, 2018
Courtesy of Natural Cycles

Every adult has his or her own preference when it comes to birth control methods: Abstinence is always an option, though the IUD is growing in popularity, and birth control pills have been favored for decades. And, of course, there are always condoms.

Many of these birth control options rely on hormones, while others must be used perfectly every time in order to work. (Even then, abstinence and outercourse are the only birth control options that are 100 percent effective, according to Planned Parenthood.) Picking the right birth control for you and your partner is a highly personal choice—and it can take some time and some experimentation to find the best option.

If all the birth control methods you’ve tried thus far have left you dissatisfied—or, even worse, with painful side effects—you may be happy to hear that there’s a new option on the market in the U.S., and it’s newly FDA-approved as a method of contraception.

The mobile app, Natural Cycles, is used by more than 900,000 women across the globe to prevent pregnancy. (Though the Natural Cycles app does not protect against Sexually Transmitted Infections.) It works using a contraceptive method known as fertility awareness, in which women are aware of which days each month they are likely to be fertile and can get pregnant. They can refrain from having sex—or use a condom or another birth control method—on these days, thus avoiding pregnancy.

The app uses an algorithm that takes daily temperature readings (using a basal body thermometer, which women using the app must use each morning) and menstrual cycle information into account when determining which days women are ovulating and most fertile. During clinical studies evaluating its effectiveness, more than 15,000 women used the app, with a reported failure rate of 1.8 percent with perfect use—meaning 1.8 out of 100 women doing exactly what the app told them to every day for a year still got pregnant. The typical use failure rate—which includes women not using the app correctly every day—was 6.5 percent. (The app’s website claims a perfect use failure rate of 1 percent.)

For reference, male condoms have a failure rate of 18 percent, and oral contraceptives have a failure rate of 9 percent. With those kinds of failure rates for some of the most commonly used birth control methods, the failure rate for Natural Cycles doesn’t seem too bad. Although, as Vice reports, the app is currently under investigation in Sweden and in the United Kingdom for leading to dozens of unwanted pregnancies.

The system Natural Cycles uses is nothing new—women have avoided sex during certain times of the month for centuries, to varying degrees of contraceptive success—but the technology it presents is utterly that of our digital age. The app costs $10 per month, or is $80 for an annual subscription, which includes an oral basal thermometer (which users take their temperatures with each morning to determine fertility).

Though the app has been available in the United States for some time, the FDA has only just given its approval for Natural Cycles to be marketed in the country as a method of contraception. This is the first time the organization has allowed a mobile medical application to be marketed as a birth control method, though in a release announcing the approval, it notes that “Natural Cycles should not be used by women who have a medical condition where pregnancy would be associated with a significant risk to the mother or the fetus.” The Natural Cycles website also advises women with highly irregular menstrual cycles to look at other birth control options.

Is Natural Cycles the best birth control method for you? You’ll need to consult with your doctor to find out for sure; he or she is your best resource for finding the best birth control option for you. But if you want an option that is hormone-free and non-invasive—and you are willing to follow directions—Natural Cycles may be worth your time.