Sign In


Rx: Buying Birth Control Pills

A pill a day... keeps... the zygote away. Yeah that just happened. Here's where to get it, plus costs, doctor's advice, the Morning After Pill, etc.
Last updated: 2015-11-09

Here’s the thing about birth control pills—they are not one-size-fits-all. A box of Durex covers what, like, 99.999999% of men (citation needed) but a box of Yasmin isn’t going to have the same effectiveness for women across the board.

When you take oral contraceptives, you’re introducing an extra surge of synthetic hormones into your body’s mix of naturally occurring hormones. Different pills contain different hormones or dosages, so a brand that might work well for one woman might wreak total havoc on another woman’s body.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many varieties to choose from here. The pill is not a popular choice of contraceptives in this country. Not by a long shot. If you’re coming from the States or Europe, then you’re used to having dozens of brands to choose from, low-dosage pills, monophasic vs. triphasic, etc.

Here’s what we’ve got to work with, ladies.

BC Pill Brands in China

These are the four most common brands in the Mainland, give or take two or three lesser-known brands. Even if you go to a foreign-operated hospital like United Family or Parkway Health, chances are you won’t find more than these brands at their pharmacies, either.

a. Marvelon (mā fù long 妈富隆): 1.5 mg desogestrel + 30 micrograms ethinylestradiol
b. Mercilon (měiyì bì, 美意避): 1.5 mg desogestrel + 20 micrograms ethinylestradiol
c. Yasmin (yōu sī mín, 优思明): 3mg drospirenone + 30 micrograms ethinylestradiol
d. Diane-35 (dá yīng sān shí wŭ, 达英-35): 2mg cyproterone acetate + 30 micrograms ethinylestradiol

If you already have a brand you like from back home but can’t find it here, then you can try searching for the hormones in that brand and comparing those active ingredients to the ones here, for the closest match.

What's In Them

These are all combination pills. That means estrogen paired with progestin—more specially, progesterone—a kind of hormone that stabilizes your reproductive parts to ensure that ovulation doesn’t happen while you’re already pregnant.

I asked Dr. Tumai Tran, a family medicine physician at United Family Hospital, to take a look at what’s in these pills and explain the differences.

“Here you have the same estrogen in all of them, ethinylestradiol, and they all have the same amount, except for Mercilon, which has less. Otherwise, they're all just different kinds of progesterone,” said Dr. Tran.

The rest of the pill is comprised of inactive ingredients like lactose, calcium carbonate and starch, which are used to give the pill its shape.

Which One is "The Best"?

Dr. Tran has 16 years of experience in family medicine, particularly in family planning, prenatal and preventative care and preconception counseling.

Here’s her two cents on which of these pills to try.

“It's hard to compare, because you're comparing different types of progesterone. They obviously have the same amount of estrogen—30 micrograms of ethinylestradiol. It's that estrogen that’s building up the endometrium, and the progesterone is the one that stabilizes it.”

“A lot of the time, there is no perfect match. Because you already have your own hormones, so this hormone is kind of balancing out your own hormones at the same time. So for women who have lower levels of natural progesterone, we’d want to recommend a higher progesterone pill to prevent breakthrough bleeding.”

“The other thing is, fat has more estrogen. So people who have more fat—they tend to have heavier bleeding because they have more estrogen build up. Estrogen in the fat cells then turn into testosterone, so for these people, they will get acne, extra facial hair growth. Progesterone cuts that estrogen down and stabilizes those effects.”

The "Morning-After Pill"

When you go into a Chinese pharmacy and ask for birth control pills (避孕药, bìyùn yào), the pharmacist will likely respond with: “pills to take everyday, or just one time?”

This “one time pill” contains a high concentration of progesterone. It should not be used as a regular contraceptive. Use it for emergencies, like when a condom breaks and jizz goes rogue.

Wise words from Dr. Tran: “The morning-after pill is such a misnomer. There's no reason to wait until the morning after. If you know that you might potentially get pregnant, then take it as soon as you can— it's more effective the sooner it is. I recommend having these pills on hand. Keep it in your cupboard and if something happens, then you can take it right away. You can technically take it up to 5 days after intercourse, but the longer you wait, the higher the chance that the sperm and the egg have met. Once they've met and you take the pill, then it doesn't do anything. It's not an abortion pill.”

Costs + Where To Get It

Diane-35 69rmb* (Bayer)
Yasmin 138rmb* (Bayer)
Marvelon 23rmb* (Merck)
Mercilon 68rmb* (Merck)

Morning after pill (both contain 1.5mg levonorgestrel)

Yu Ting (毓婷 / Yùtíng), 36rmb*
Postinor (左炔诺孕酮 / Zuǒ quē nuò yùn tong), 49rmb*

*Note: these costs may vary slightly from one pharmacy to another.

Over-the-counter = (click it right here.)

If you’re content with going OTC and buying domestically made pills, then any local pharmacy will carry these brands. Just look for signage that has a green cross on a white background.

Here are the pharmacies you’ll most commonly run into in Shanghai. Click on the names for a list of addresses in Chinese.

Shanghai Huashi Pharmacy 上海华氏药房
Shanghai Guoda Pharmacy Chain 国大药房
Shanghai Lianhua Fosun Pharmacy 上海联华复星药房

Parkway Health also carries the Big Four over at its pharmacies, but you’ll need to set up a consultation with a doctor before you can buy it there. A pharmacist here explained to me that the pills they carry are manufactured in this country by Bayer (Germany) and Merck (United States).

United Family carries them too, though their pharmacist tells us that the versions they have are imported, so they’re a bit more costly: Diane-35 (150rmb), Yasmin (231rmb), Marvelon 63rmb), Mercilon (108rmb) and Postinor (81rmb). They also have a triphasic offering too, locally-made: 左炔诺孕酮炔雌醇(三相)片 —it translates directly as “levonorgestrel ethinylestradiol (three phase)—at 100rmb a box. Again, if you want to get your pills here, then you’ll need a prescription after meeting with one of United’s doctors for a consultation.

There are plenty of other options for contraceptives, too. See this article about where to get an IUD in Shanghai for information on the benefits of the Mirena IUD.