A CONTRACEPTIVE gel that is rubbed directly into the skin could offer women an alternative to taking the Pill, while limiting some of the side-effects, researchers say.
The clear gel would be applied once a day and works by delivering a dose of hormones through the skin to prevent ovulation and pregnancy.
Women using the gel in clinical trials have reported none of the side-effects associated with the Pill, such as headaches, temporary weight gain and acne. American researchers who are developing the product say it is suitable for those who are breastfeeding, who are often warned not to take the combined Pill because the hormones it contains can interfere with milk supply.
The gel can be applied to the abdomen, thighs, arms or shoulders and is absorbed quickly, with no residue.
The product could be marketed within about five years if the results of clinical trials continue to be positive.
Ruth Merkatz, director of clinical development at the Population Council's research centre, a non-profit organisation in New York, said that the latest study had involved 18 women in their 20s and 30s in Chile, the Dominican Republic and the US.
"(Women) only need to use a small quantity once a day," Dr Merkatz said. "From this study we found it was effective."
The gel, which currently does not have a trade name, is being developed by Antares Pharma, an American company. Its key ingredient is Nestorone, a synthetic version of the natural hormone progesterone. The product also contains a type of oestrogen that is chemically identical to that produced by women. Both of these hormones can play an important role in preventing ovulation and the gel works by interfering with hormone production.
In the trials, the women applied the gel daily for three weeks then left a week free to have their period.
More than three million women in Britain take an oral contraceptive pill to prevent pregnancy, but Dr Merkatz, who is presenting the findings at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting in Denver, said the gel could enhance women's choice of contraception.
Natika Halil, director of information at the British Family Planning Association, said: "Any contraceptive system that increases the choice of methods available to women and helps to prevent unwanted pregnancies is welcome.
"This product won't suit everyone and will only be for women comfortable putting it on their skin and having their contraceptive cover that way."
Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, a sexual health charity, said: "Anything that can help young women has got to be a good thing. Clearly, what young women need is more choice." (The Times, London)