Chelsea Roff: No birth control? Women once used Lysol as contraception.

new study reported on in the journal Pediatrics reveals that even though it’s legal for 17-year-olds to get the so-called morning-after pill, many pharmacy employees often tell teens they’re not allowed to have the drug anyway.

Whether she is under the age of 18 or not, all women should have agency over her own body. The “morning after pill” is often misunderstood to be some kind of pseudo-abortion drug, which is likely why some pharmacists feel the need to withhold it. In reality, this form of emergency contraception prevents pregnancy before it begins by delaying or inhibiting ovulation. Abortion isn’t the issue, and there’s no reason as 16-year-old girl shouldn’t be able to purchase birth control just the same way as her boyfriend can buy a condom.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, each year in the U.S. nearly 750,000 teenage girls become pregnant, with 85% of those being “unwanted.” Teens are having sex whether their parents (or legislators) like it or not, and denying contraception won’t do anything to curb that trend. Research shows that emergency contraception can prevent half of unplanned teen pregnancies. If we want to address the issue of unsafe sex, intelligent sex education programs are the way to go… not punitive measures like withholding birth control.

At Mother Jones, Nicole Pasulka wrote an photo-essay that provided some interesting historical perspective on this issue. Apparently back in the 1950’s, when women couldn’t get access to birth control they turned to more radical measures:

[In the 20th century] women who couldn’t afford or gain access to medically administered birth control had to come up with their own strategies for staying baby free. Douching was cheap, accessible, and widely advertised as a feminine hygiene product; however, as Andrea Tone writes in the book Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, it was also the most common form of birth control from 1940 until 1960—when the oral contraceptive pill arrived on the market.

The most popular brand of douche was Lysol—an antiseptic soap whose pre-1953 formula contained cresol, a phenol compound reported in some cases to cause inflammation, burning, and even death. By 1911 doctors had recorded 193 Lysol poisonings and five deaths from uterine irrigation. Despite reports to the contrary, Lysol was aggressively marketed to women as safe and gentle. Once cresol was replaced with ortho-hydroxydiphenyl in the formula, Lysol was pushed as a germicide good for cleaning toilet bowls and treating ringworm, and Lehn & Fink’s, the company that made the disinfectant, continued to market it as safeguard for women’s “dainty feminine allure.”

Douching may have been cheaper than condoms or diaphragms and available over the counter in most drugstores, but it didn’t work. In a 1933 study, Tone writes, nearly half of the 507 women who used douching as a birth control method ended up pregnant.

That’s right, Lysol ads told women the product was a safe, gentle means to “cleanse the vaginal canal.” I suppose we’ve come a long way in fifty years.

This news is certainly cause for concern. It suggests that even when we have laws on the books designed to ensure girls have access to contraception, if the cultural mindset hasn’t shifted… girls and women can still find themselves shackled by the prejudices of overzealous pharmacists.

For a fantastic read on the importance of empowering girls and women, I suggest Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.


photo by: Raychel Mendez


  1. I'll never forget when my friend Joanie and I went to the local health department and asked for birth control pills, in 1972 or 1973. She was a little older and so they gave them to her but they wouldn't give them to me. I was 15 and had been having regular sex every weekend or so since I was 13. Yes, my parents would have had a fit had they known but they didn't. I was a straight A student with nice friends and responsible parents. I didn't get pregnant until I had been married for 3 years, many years later. I was a good, regular girl and knew about the rhythm method and kept up with my days very accurately.

    Then the "sponge" was invented and that became the thing to use if one couldn't take the pill. Remember that lots of women couldn't take the pill in the early days due to break through bleeding and other complications. Then we learned that sponges needed to be wet with clean water. What a concept! Did that mean boiling the water and waiting on it to cool? Needless to say, the sponge didn't meet our needs.

    How to help young women today? Educate them to know more about their bodies as well as their minds and spirits.

    The morning after pill isn't the total answer but it's another help on our way back to the top of the heap when we can say, "No," and still be respected for it the next morning. That's the real concept we need to grasp as women in the "enlightened west." We really do have the power to rule the world.