Tips and resources for healthier and more environmentally responsible birth control, sex toys, and lubricants
There are number of things that can be done to green-up sex itself. From using products such as condoms and lubricants that are healthy on the body, not made of estrogen-releasing plastics, and are gentle on the environment to avoiding birth control that routinely exposes your body and our waterways to persistent doses of estrogen.
There is of course a green argument, as well as numerous others, to be made for why a person might consider some form of birth control, usually that argument is mostly about limiting overpopulation. If you are currently caring for a young baby—or two or three—you can likely think of a whole lot of other reasons for birth control as well. However, from an environmental and health perspective, not all birth control is equal. If you don’t read the rest of the article, say you have a hot date waiting for you right now—then, in short, natural fertility tracking is, well, the most natural and condoms the more practical alternative for most people. Those condoms are best if they are latex —or sheepskin if STDs aren’t an issue—and definitely without spermicide, flavouring, or fragrance added.
There are also tips below on making natural lubricants.
Chemical birth control—the pill—the patch—the Ring
From both perspectives—environmental and health— chemical birth control causes numerous problems. The “pill” is the most popular form of this birth control, at least in North America, where about 17 percent of U.S. women—11 million people—use it. Besides a possible link to increased breast cancer rates, stroke, heart disease, depression, weight gain, and blood clots in women who use the pill, women who use chemical birth control also release estrogen into the water supply through their urine. This estrogen is linked to estrogenic effects—such as tumors, infertility, heart problems, and more— in downstream marine life and even a possible increase in breast cancer in some women just from drinking the now contaminated water. Numerous studies of municipal water systems have found low levels of estrogen in drinking water and chemical birth control is one source—along with hormones fed to livestock and estrogen-mimicking chemicals found in plastics, personal care products, and fragrances. While it is hard to determine just how much of an issue these low levels of estrogen are for the population as whole, it is known that estrogen and estrogen mimickers are very to remove from the water through treatment. Similar things can happen with the contraceptive patch, Nuva Ring, and other similar forms of chemical birth control, but they continue to leach into the surrounding environment—and get into the water—after disposal. Chemical estrogen is persistent—which means that it last for a long time—in the environment and in our bodies.
I’ve spoken with a number of healthcare providers and researchers recently and they say that the harm to women from hormonal birth controls has been radically underrated. As one healthcare provider stated: “Being on chemical birth control is like putting your body through early menopause.” Beware: the side effects not only include increased rates of cancer and disease, but permanent infertility in many women.
The IUD (Intrauterine device)
There are two forms of IUD: they both are small, t-shaped, plastic, and inserted into the uterus. One relies on copper (and lasts for up to 10 years) and the other on a chemical progestin (and lasts for up to 5 years) and both work by damaging or killing sperm to prevent conception. While the hormonal version of the IUD seems to have less of the negative side-effects of other chemical birth control, it still puts women at risk for many of those mentioned above. The copper one does not rely on synthetic hormones to work, but it does still rely on piece of plastic being in your body for up to 10 years and the copper itself can have harmful effects on a woman’s thyroid and adrenal systems. While most of the research on estrogen-mimickers and marine life are done on the pill, progestin is found in waterways as well and presumably it would end up there in small concentrations from using this form of the IUD. As well, the hormonal IUD could continue to release synthetic hormones after disposal. The copper IUD involves very little waste as it is so small and lasts for many years.
Condoms are the third most popular form of birth control in North America and world-wide there are approximately 10 billion sold. Overall, they are a relatively greener choice on the environment and on human health. There are a lot of polyurethane condoms now on the market—they seem to be gaining popularity—as a latex-free option. Avoid them if at all possible. Polyurethane is plastic and it contains plasticizers. Plasticizers, such as phthalates which makes plastic soft, are hard on human health and the environment, often contain estrogen-mimickers, and many are cancer-causers. Like all plastics, polyurethane does not break down in the environment but photo-degrades leaving microscopic bits of plastic around for, well, basically forever.
The latex condom is a better choice for the environment as it is—at least theoretically— biodegradable and it does not rely only plastics and plasticizers. Latex condoms will not biodegrade if you flush them down the toilet and nothing much biodegrades in a landfill, so the green-ness of this method is largely based on the fact that they don’t take up much space in the landfill and are easier on human and environmental health because of fewer additives. There are greener rubber condoms made from natural rubber and free of the carcinogenic nitrosamines, which are found in most latex condoms.
The greenest condom option is probably the lambskin condoms, which are made from sheep guts. This is how condoms were made historically. They are the most “natural” condom option and biodegrade more quickly than any other condoms (although for them to biodegrade, you would need to put them in the compost, not the landfill…) These, of course, are not vegan, and they also aren’t effective against some forms of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and they are expensive–more than triple the cost of other condoms. Thus, they are out-of-vogue currently. I went looking for them—as research of course—and did not find them in a single drugstore or sex shop that I visited. Only one big company even makes them so its not easy to even get them shipped to Canada.
With all the condoms, those little plastic or foil packages aren’t recyclable and thus represent more waste than the condoms themselves.
Those condoms that come in flavours and smells? Well, that’s just weird, and they are usually full of synthetic flavourings (obviously) and fragrances (also full of phthalates.) Just avoid those.
Do not flush condoms. If it doesn’t clog up your toilet, it does clog up the water treatment plant. I’ve visited water treatment plants—as research of course—and you can see all these engorged plastic bag type things floating around and mucking up the machinery. Yup, that’s the condoms. It drives the sewage treatment workers crazy and it can make it very difficult to effectively clean the water and deal with the remaining waste. Also the Worldwatch Institute found 26,000 condoms during an international coastal cleanup, many of these having gotten into the ocean from flushing down toilets.
There are a couple of brands of condoms that are a little bit more “eco.” They include lambskin condoms, the Sustain condom (fair-trade rubber, compostable packaging, entirely free of nitrosamines), the French Letter brand which is the first fair-trade condoms; and Glyde which are ethically manufactured, biodegradable, and vegan.
Do not buy condoms with spermicide. It may sound “better” to use condoms with spermicide but spermicides, such as Nonoxyenol-9 and other nonylphenols are pesticides. Needless to say, they aren’t good for your health and are known endocrine disruptors (messing with your body’s hormone system) and they are hard on the environment—where they can mess with the hormone systems of aquatic life. They are restricted in the European Union as a hazard to human and environmental safety. As well, long-term or frequent use of spermicides, can increase a woman’s chance of contracting STDs, including AIDS, and giving them to her partner. This is because the spermicide irritates the vagina and cervix causing inflammation and killing of protective layers of cells.
Contraceptive foams, creams, suppositories, films, Today’s Sponge
All of these contain or rely on spermicides to be effective. Read above: spermicide is bad for you health and for the fishies. Better to just avoid.
The diaphragm, is a almost-ecologically sound barrier method made of either latex or silicone and inserted into the vagina. Because it is used for one to three years before needing replaced, it is less waste than a condom. However, to be effective, the diaphragm is supposed to be used with spermicide. Thus, this method is still problematic because it certainly isn’t the healthiest option for women.
Natural fertility tracking—the rhythm method—“the way Catholic’s do it”
While the rhythm method often gets knocked for its ineffectiveness—if you wonder how effective it is just talk to any woman with three kids—true natural fertility tracking as a whole can be quite effective. It does, however, involve work by both partners. In order to actually track when you are fertile—which is only less than a week in any one month cycle—a woman is best using a combination of temperature-taking, cervical mucus reading, and abstinence. Learn more in Taking Charge of Your Fertility or at Justisse Healthworks where you can also download an app to help you chart your cycle.
If you read the ingredients on most lubricants, you will be appalled. They are often full of ingredients that are known to be harmful or toxic when used on the skin: including fragrance, parabens, DEA, petrochemicals, propylene glycol, polyethylene glycol (PEG), methylisothiazolinone, and Nonoxynol-9). These are certainly not ingredients you would eat. If you wouldn’t eat it… then don’t ingest it though your most sensitive areas either! Be particularly aware of anything with fragrance—besides being an allergen, perfumes and synthetic fragrances, contain phthalates which aren’t good for humans or fishes. Besides the possible long-term negative health effects of synthetic lubricants, there is also the very real chance of immediate problems as they will often contribute to yeast infections. Lubricants to avoid include petroleum jelly or any mineral oil-based product which can break down condoms and contain by-products of petroleum found in the breast tissue of women with breast cancer and can increase chances of bacterial infection.
D-I-Y natural lubricants
Cocoa butter makes a great natural lubricant. It smells and tastes like chocolate, won’t contribute to yeast overgrowth, and isn’t messy. Coconut oil is another safe choice as well. In either case you can just use a small fingerful and your body’s natural warmth will help melt it. Neither of these should be used with latex condoms. Clean water and saliva are probably the most natural lubricants used safely with latex condoms.
Read more about healthier lubricants and DIY options. Or shop for better options at the Green Mama astore.
Perhaps after reading this list you are thinking you had better just ditch sex altogether—maybe settle for the kind of sexual partner that takes batteries. Even here, there is research to be done. Most vibrators are made from PVC—the ickiest form of plastic as far as I am concerned both for its effects on human and environmental health—as it releases phthalates and PVC vibrators can offgas a number of dangerous chemicals. Obviously, it is better to avoid these. Of course there is also the waste of all those batteries to think about. There are alternatives made of stainless steel and even glass—I know it sounds a bit scary to me too—but, they are overall, much safer.
Okay, enough reading, go out and enjoy! Or, to learn more, try a couple great books such as There is Lead in Your Lipstick by Gil Deacon or Taking Charge of Your Fertility. Shop for these great books, healthier condoms, and better lubricants at the Green Mama store (which helps support this website through affiliate relationships where Amazon pays a small percentage of earnings from referral sales back sort of like after-the-fact advertising.)
Article by Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama. Photo, Beet Mine, by Anna-Claire Stinebring. To learn more extremely helpful and timely Green Mama tips and to find out about the upcoming Green Mama book sign-up for my weekly newsletter.
...And, ahem, I am not a medical doctor, a midwife, or your actual mother so take all advice with a grain of salt and if you get pregnant practicing the rhythm method or because your condom breaks, don’t blame me!