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World's first approved birth control app debuts: Will it push out the Pill?

Natural Cycles was developed by a pair of married European physicists, but would you trust an app for birth control?
/ Source: TODAY

Women looking for birth control other than pills, implants or sponges can turn to their cell phones for help, with many apps offering to predict when they can and can’t get pregnant.

One app in particular is getting lots of attention.

Natural Cycles, which was developed by a pair of married physicists, bills itself as the world’s only app to be certified for the use of contraception. It was approved as a medical device by a German-based certification organization, classifying it as a contraceptive in the European Union, the company announced in February.

More than 200,000 women in 161 countries are said to use the app.

The company, headquartered in Sweden, was founded by Elina Berglund and her husband Raoul Scherwitzl, who both have PhDs in physics and “applied their mathematical techniques” to come up with a non-hormonal, non-invasive method of birth control, the company says.

Is it a 'red' or 'green' day?

Women have to take their temperature with a basal thermometer every morning and enter it into the app, which considers that and other factors, such as cycle irregularities and “sperm survival.”

The algorithm then tells a woman if it’s a “red day,” when she’s likely to get pregnant and needs to use protection or abstain from sex; or a “green day,” when she’s not fertile and can have unprotected sex, if she wishes.

Natural Cycles conducted a study of more than 4,000 women using their app and found with typical use, the app is 93 percent effective when it comes to preventing pregnancy. Oral contraceptives are 91 percent effective when measuring typical use, according to the FDA.

But experts want more large-scale and independent research and say women should proceed with caution.

There are about a thousand fertility and birth control apps available, but they’re not being regulated by the FDA or any other U.S. government entity at this time, said Victoria Jennings, director and principal investigator of the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University.

“It’s a little bit of a Wild West,” Jennings told TODAY. Women impressed by the news that Natural Cycles has been certified for the use of contraception in the E.U. should be interested and somewhat skeptical, she added.

“The entity in the European Union that has certified it is not to be confused with something like our FDA,” Jennings said.

She and her team are currently studying another family planning app, Dynamic Optimal Timing or DOT, and they’ve found women like these digital helpers for lots of reasons, including tracking their periods and avoiding hormonal methods for birth control.

If you are considering using an app, here’s what you should know:

Decide what kind of app you want

Women like the idea of being able to know their bodies and if you are interested in just tracking your cycles, lots of apps will do, Jennings said. The problem comes if you want to rely on them to prevent a pregnancy.

“A birth control method has to be studied very carefully in a very specific type of trial,” she said. “Zero of them have been submitted to that type of scrutiny, including Natural Cycles. That’s a concern.”

Do your homework

Just about anybody can build a fertility app and put it out at the app store without much regulation, Jennings said.

Read the fine print. Don’t just choose something that comes up on the first page of the search or has a nice ad. Look to see what kind of scientific literature there is to back up a company’s claims “because what you’ll see is a lot of advertisements that make claims that are simply not true,” Jennings said.

“I’m precariously balanced here because I don’t want to say ‘Don’t use an app, they’ve not been proven, they aren’t very good’ because that’s not true. But I want to say be very careful about the app you choose,” she added.

Consider what information you have to put in

Are you willing to take your temperature every morning before you get out of bed, as required by Natural Cycles? Or would you prefer to only put in your period start dates, the protocol used by DOT?

Also consider any costs associated with the app.

Remember the limitations

“It does not protect against STDs,” said NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar. “That’s something that’s very important to re-emphasize to women who would choose this method.”

Then, there’s the trust issue. When TODAY asked viewers whether they’d trust an app over traditional contraceptives, 93 percent of respondents said no.

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