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How safe is online shopping for medicines?

Buying medicines over the internet from the comfort of your own home may sound appealing. But, it could have some serious risks to your health and your wallet.

Many websites selling medicines are legitimate businesses. However, many are not.

Some websites are ‘fake’ sites, and many sell out-of-date, poor quality, contaminated or even fake medicines. Sorting out the ‘good’ sites from the ‘bad’ ones isn't always easy. If you decide to buy medicines online, here are a few hints to point you in the right direction.

What are the signs that an online pharmacy is legitimate? 

Always keep all your health professionals informed about any medicines you take. No medicine is 100% safe.

Buying an unfamiliar medicine over the internet without being able to talk to a pharmacist or your usual healthcare provider puts you at risk of taking a medicine that is not suitable for you, has undesirable side effects, or interacts with your other medicines.

If you are considering buying medicines online, look for the ‘About us’ or ‘FAQs’ pages of the website.

Any legitimate website should clearly show, at least:

  • a real physical address (preferably in Australia)
  • an email address
  • a working telephone contact number, and
  • credible details about the proprietor or company that runs it, such as the company name and Australian Company Number.

Check for online reviews to see if there are any alerts or complaints from other customers.

A legitimate Australian online pharmacy will:

  • probably have an internet address that ends in .com.au
  • require you to send them a valid prescription from a doctor or health professional before they will dispatch your prescription medicine
  • give details of Quality Care Pharmacy Program accreditation or registration with a state Pharmacy Council
  • provide a phone contact for you to talk to a pharmacist within designated business hours
  • give a number of different prices for each medicine, depending on the kind of prescription or entitlements you have under the Australian PBS system. 

Find out more about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme

Should overseas websites be avoided?

There are reasons to be wary of overseas websites. 

  • Overseas websites are not regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the products they sell may not meet Australian safety and quality standards.
  • Legitimate overseas pharmacies will require a prescription that meets their local legal requirements, and your Australian prescription may not be valid.
  • Medicines from these sites may have different ingredients from medicines sold in Australia, even if the brand is the same.
  • It is illegal to import certain medicines or medical devices into Australia by mail. If you do order them, and your parcel is intercepted, you will lose your money, and may even face prosecution.

Find out more about Australian restrictions on importing medicines and medical devices

What about sites that don’t require a prescription?

Any site that provides prescription medicines without receiving a valid prescription from a health professional first, is breaking Australian law.

Never buy from sites that sell prescription medicines without a prescription or issue you with a prescription following an online consultation of some sort.

These will not be legitimate pharmacies and buying from them is a serious risk.

Buying non-prescription medicines from these sites can also be risky. 

Are their claims too good to be true? 

Beware of wild claims. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

With medicines, be wary of prices that are much cheaper than you expect or claims that their medicines are better or stronger than what is generally available in Australia.

With complementary medicines, ‘natural’ or herbal products, be wary of exaggerated claims or miracle cures. Some of these products are not legally available in Australia, because they are unsafe and can cause serious health problems for people who take them.

The TGA issues warnings about many of these products every year. Recently they have warned consumers about:

  • slimming pills that contained a substance withdrawn from use because of increased risk of major cardiac (heart) events 
  • male sexual stimulants found to contain undisclosed prescription-only substances. 

Check the Therapeutic Goods Administration's Safety Alerts 

Unregulated medicines can have serious risks

Medicines that are not regulated by the TGA, and can be ordered from overseas, carry a number of serious risks.

  • They may be counterfeit and contain no active ingredients.
  • They may contain the wrong amount of an active ingredient, and either be too weak to help you, or strong enough to harm you.
  • They may be contaminated or adulterated with toxic substances.
  • They may contain undisclosed or dangerous ingredients.
  • They may be past their use-by date.

Australia has a very good system for maintaining the safety and quality of medicines that are sold here. 

Find out more about how medicines are approved for use in Australia

3 min read

Date published: 5 November 2018
Reasonable care is taken to provide accurate information at the time of creation. This information is not intended as a substitute for medical advice and should not be exclusively relied on to manage or diagnose a medical condition. NPS MedicineWise disclaims all liability (including for negligence) for any loss, damage or injury resulting from reliance on or use of this information. Read our full disclaimer. This website uses cookies. Read our privacy policy.