UK

Natural Cycles: How the glossy Insta-famous contraceptive app lost its sparkle

Turns out fit influencers can’t stop pregnancies

A MacBook air on crisp white sheets, the corner of a glossy magazine, Clinique face cream, draping plants, breakfast in bed. This might sound like an Instagram account of an influencer. But this is what you'll find on contraceptive app Natural Cycles's page, which boasts 80,000 followers, and an aesthetic so millennial pink on first look you'd assume it was a make-up brand.

"I was persuaded to use it from the Instagram hype surrounding it last year," says Sophia, an Edinburgh uni student who started using Natural Cycles,"but I wouldn’t have started now that all the horror stories have come out."

Natural Cycles has become the contraception for the young woman tired of hormonal contraception and ready to try something more natural. And after looking at their perfectly curated branding, who could blame them? The app now has 700,000 active users across 200 countries with 125,000 of those users in the UK.

This week, however, the app was banned by UK regulators from calling itself a "highly effective" contraceptive method on Facebook ads in the UK, a little over four years after it was first created.

The app, which costs £39.99 upfront or £5.99 per month, monitors the user's temperature to track fertility. Your temperature rises when you ovulate, meaning they can accurately say when it's okay to safely have sex during your cycle. It breaks your month up into green and red days – green means you're good to go and red means you need to use another form of contraception in order to avoid pregnancy. As the app is so user reliant, it's more prone to error than many other contraceptives.

It's not hard to see why so many people have been drawn in, though. Natural Cycles have spent some serious money recruiting Insta famous bloggers to sponsor the app, many of who pose aesthetic pics of them lounging in bed having just taken their temperature. There's an exclusive sisterhood too: Those who use the app are known as "cyclers", and one can only become a "cycler" once you've forgone traditional methods of contraception and taken control of your body.

Ella Willis, the Edinburgh student and Made In Chelsea star, ditched the pill to become a "cycler". In a now-deleted Instagram post, Ella poses on her bed with her legs in the air, while using the app. However she also uploaded another Instagram post about it three weeks later.

Even Natural Cycles' co-founder, Elina Berglund, openly calls herself a "cycler" and trusts the app to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

Sophia and Susanna are two of those girls; the two Edinburgh students started using the app last year.

Sophia has been using the app for 10 months after being on the pill for two and a half years. "I noticed it because it was marketed in an appealing way on social media towards young women."

After hormonal contraception started harming her mood and relationship, Susanna started using Natural Cycles for eight months. "It seemed like a great alternative and after reading some of the medical studies I decided that I wanted to use it ," she says. "When I was using it, I thought their Instagram marketing was fab and educating people."

About a year ago is when the hype really grew. In September, the Evening Standard ran a feature calling it "more effective than the pill". In November, Natural Cycles bagged a $30 million investment to expand.

The science behind the app is backed up by several clinical studies. Natural Cycles conducted the largest medical study for a contraceptive to date, and when 22,785 women were tested over 224,563 menstrual cycles, the app was found to be more effective than the pill. If used under perfect conditions it is 99 per cent effective and used under normal circumstances it's 93 per cent. In both cases this is higher than the pill, which is only 91 per cent effective.

Yet, under the gloss and positive media coverage soon emerged stories of everything not going to plan. In July this year, Olivia Sudjic, fell pregnant while using the app. The novelist wrote bout having an abortion last year in the Guardian. She wasn't the first: Last year the app was blamed for 37 unwanted pregnancies in just one hospital in Sweden.

For Olivia it appeared to be a glitch in the algorithm that women have to so blindly rely on, rather than human error. She had unprotected sex on a day that had been marked as green on the app and when she entered her temperature into the app the next day, the previous day suddenly changed to red, leading to her unwanted pregnancy.

When Olivia's article went viral she was contacted by Natural Cycles, who have since changed the app to let users know of the risks of using Natural Cycles as a contraceptive.

The warning message that you are presented with when you download the app as a result of Olivia's article

As users have to take their temperature in the mornings before they wake up -the time of waking up can be +/- 2 hours each morning- the app can be difficult to fit into your lifestyle. Susanna says that when you use Natural Cycles "you just accept that you have to make compromises and be extra careful".

Sophia admits that the app is "not designed for a student lifestyle" mainly because you have to watch how much you drink while using the app as alcohol, and the subsequent hangover, can affect your temperature and therefore make it less effective.

Then, this week it was revealed that Natural Cycles have been investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority over a Facebook advert that claimed the app was "highly accurate". The ASA found it had been presenting "misleading" information. As a result Natural Cycles can now no longer describe itself as "highly effective" and was told "not to exaggerate" its efficacy.

And the news doesn't look good for the world's first Insta-famous contraception. Susanna stopped using Natural Cycles as a contraception after she became worried that the programme didn't look at other aspects of her life, that might affect your cycle, when deciding red and green days.

She said: "The app doesn’t take into consideration the effect that stress can have on ovulation. And that scared me a lot because then it was more likely for me to get pregnant."

Sophia says she probably wouldn't start using the app now after all the "horror stories" that have come out over the last few months.

Elina Berglund, the co-founder, has publicly admitted that her perfect user is a woman "in a stable relationship who is planning to have children at some point soon and would like a break from hormonal contraception", something that might not be the intended outcome for the 75 per cent of users that bought the app as contraception.

In response to the ASA decision, Natural Cycles said: "We respect the outcome of the investigation by the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) into one Facebook advertisement, which ran for approximately 4 weeks in mid-2017. The investigation was initiated nearly 12 months ago and the advertisement was removed as soon as we were notified of the complaint.

This investigation triggered an internal review of all our advertisements and the way that we communicate more broadly, to ensure our message is clear and provides women with the information they need to determine if Natural Cycles is right for them.

As part of these efforts, every advertisement now undergoes a strict approval process by a dedicated taskforce to ensure that it gives an accurate overall impression to the viewer. We actively seek feedback from Natural Cycles users to help us improve the quality of our communications and, moving forwards, we plan to work even more closely with HCPs, women and our user community to test and refine our marketing approach.

Natural Cycles has been independently evaluated and cleared by regulators in Europe and the US based on clinical evidence demonstrating its effectiveness as a method of contraception."