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Researchers develop earrings that double as contraceptives

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a prototype for birth control that masquerades as jewelry.

Researchers develop earrings that double as contraceptives
This photograph shows an earring patch (white) that can deliver contraceptive hormone while being worn on an earring back. The size of the patch is about one square centimeter. [Photo: Mark Prausnitz/Georgia Tech]

There are many forms of contraception: Some make you remember to take a pill at the same time every day, others require an invasive procedure, such as putting in an IUD. But what if family planning were as easy as wearing jewelry?

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A new study published in the Journal of Controlled Release proposes adding contraceptive patches to necklaces, earrings, wristwatches, and rings in the places where the jewelry is in contact with a woman’s skin, allowing hormones to be absorbed through the course of the day.

Image shows potential contraceptive jewelry, in clockwise order, a pharmaceutical watch, ring, choker necklace, and earring. In each case, a white contraceptive patch material is applied to a part of the jewelry that would be in contact with the skin. [Photo: Mark Prausnitz/Georgia Tech]

In the United States, 62% of all women of child-bearing age use contraception, according to the National Health Statistics Report. Of those, the pill is the most common form, with about 10.2 million women popping one every day. But to be most effective, the pill must be taken at the same time every day, which is often difficult to do.

A contraceptive earring patch is shown as it would be worn on a woman’s ear. The white contraceptive patch can be seen attached to the earring back and adhered to the back of the ear. [Photo: Mark Prausnitz/Georgia Tech]
However, if you were able to get contraceptive hormones simply by putting on the earrings you wear every day, you could potentially get your dosage more consistently. It’s a clever way to wring more usefulness out of an established daily behavior among many women (wearing jewelry) and, in doing so, reduce the cognitive load of remembering to take the pill. It’s one of the reasons why IUDs are so successful–once the procedure is over, you don’t have to think about it at all.

This idea isn’t entirely new: Contraceptive patches already exist (from 2006 to 2010, 10% of women had used a patch at some point). Plus, there are also patches that transmit other kinds of medication, like for motion sickness, nicotine addiction, and menopause symptoms, through the skin. But Mark Prausnitz, a professor and the chair of Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, believes that combining contraceptive patches with jewelry might make them a more attractive–and discreet–option for women. And the more contraceptive options women have, the better people will be able to control their reproductive health.

So far, the jewelry patches, in the form of earrings, have only been tested on animals: in particular, pigs and hairless rats. The researchers simulated how many women wear earrings by leaving the earring patches on the animals for 16 hours, and then taking them off for eight hours. They found that even though the animals didn’t have the contraceptive jewelry on all the time, the animals still had far above the sufficient hormone dose that humans need for the contraception to be effective (hormone patches have a failure rate of less than 1% when they’re used correctly).

The researchers think that earrings and watches are likely the best way to transmit contraceptive hormones for humans because they remain in such close contact with the skin. Prausnitz imagines that women would use a single, drug-coated earring backing that she could then use with a variety of earrings (you’d probably have to change the backing’s adhesive about once a week). In the recently published tests, the researchers used a patch that was only a square centimeter in size, but it was still able to deliver an effective dose. Humans might need more though, as the size of the patch directly correlates with how much of the hormones it can release.

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There’s additional research needed before your doctor can prescribe you contraceptive earrings. The next step is to start testing on humans and survey groups of women from different countries to ensure that it’s something that they actually want.

For women who wear jewelry consistently, it could be an ideal solution. I can easily imagine having a patch on my wristwatch or my rings, which I wear regularly. Then my jewelry will be more than a fashion statement–it’ll be practical, too.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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