The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a digital birth control app for the first time, though questions remain on how effective it is in preventing unwanted pregnancies.
The app, named Natural Cycles, is the first such app allowed to be marketed as contraception in the United States. How does the app function, and does it really work?
Natural Cycles: Here's How It Works
Natural Cycles, which costs $80 per year, is basically the app version of the rhythm method, where women predict their fertility in any given day based on their menstrual history.
The app is powered by an algorithm that predicts where women are in their menstrual cycle, which allows them to gauge whether there is a low or high chance of a pregnancy if they have sex. Natural Cycles relies on small changes in the woman's temperature readings, with safe days marked green and fertile days marked red.
During ovulation, when a woman's egg cells are ripe for fertilization, her average body temperature increases by less than 1 degree. To measure this small but important change, Natural Cycles comes with a digital thermometer that can take readings beyond two digits after the decimal point, with the data then entered in the app.
Is The Natural Cycles App Effective?
"Consumers are increasingly using digital health technologies to inform their everyday health decisions, and this new app can provide an effective method of contraception if it's used carefully and correctly," said FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health assistant director for the health of women Dr. Terri Cornelison.
"But women should know that no form of contraception works perfectly, so an unplanned pregnancy could still result from correct usage of this device," Cornelison clarified.
Natural Cycles had a "perfect use" failure rate of 1.8 percent and a "typical use" failure rate of 6.5 percent in clinical studies involving over 15,500 women. The "typical use" failure rate incorporated instances when women failed to correctly use the app or when they had unprotected sex during days that the app flagged as fertile.
Women are given the option of whether or not to trust Natural Cycles, given those failure rate figures. Women should also be informed that in Sweden, the home country of the company behind Natural Cycles, a hospital reported 37 unwanted pregnancies among women who depended on the app, with the investigation on the matter still ongoing.
Fortunately, there are several birth control options for couples. There are also male birth control pills in the works, while intrauterine devices, or IUDs, remain very effective birth control methods while also lowered cervical cancer risk by 30 percent.