There is an urgent clinical need to research novel methods of fertility control that are also protective against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or Chlamydia. The most obvious way to generate such a dual-purpose contraceptive method would be to develop safe, effective spermicides that were also active against a wide range of pathogenic organisms. The currently available formulations such as nonoxynol-9, gramicidin and benzalkonium chloride are effective spermicides but are toxic to the vaginal epithelium and do not provide protection against STDs. Over 60 agents are in clinical trials as potentially safer topical spermicides and/or microbicides. Compounds that have reached this stage of development include acid buffers, detergents, dendrimers, non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors and anionic polymers. In addition, a number of potential spermicides/microbicides are the subject of preclinical investigation, including β-cyclodextrin, cyanovirin, porphyrins, cyclotriazadisulfonamides, dermaseptins, short-interfering RNA (siRNA) and HIV antibodies. The chemical principles underlying these disparate approaches and potential avenues for future investigation are discussed.