Buying medicine and other therapeutic goods from an online pharmacy has advantages, but you need to be careful. If you buy from an overseas website, there's a risk you could lose your money, break the law or seriously damage your health.
How are medicines regulated?
Medicines are known legally as 'therapeutic goods'. To be sold in Australia and on websites operated by Australian companies, they must be assessed and approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
The TGA checks the quality of therapeutic goods, making sure that they are safe and they do what they are supposed to do. In addition to medicines, the TGA also checks the quality of goods such as:
- bandages, pregnancy tests, and artificial hips and knees
- complementary medicines including vitamins
- sunscreen and other products that claim to protect skin from the sun
Medicines or medical devices bought online from an overseas company are not regulated by the TGA. Nor are most protein supplements, which are usually treated as foods, not therapeutic goods.
Buying prescription medicines in Australia
In Australia, some medicines are available only on prescription because doctors and other health professionals need to check that you really need them — and advise you on how to take them safely. Some medicines can have side effects and can interact with each other, as well.
Benefits of buying prescription medicines online
Buying medicines online can sometimes work out cheaper and more convenient than getting them from a local pharmacy.
Risks of buying medicines online
If you buy medicines or other therapeutic goods online from an overseas source, you could risk your health, lose your money or potentially break the law.
Risks to your health
The product you order might:
- be fake
- contain too much, or too little, of the active ingredients
- contain toxic or dangerous ingredients
- contain ingredients that are illegal in Australia
- be past their use-by date
You could lose your money
The medicines might never arrive. This could be because they were stopped by Australian customs because they contain ingredients you are not allowed to import.
As with any purchase from an overseas business, you might not be protected by Australian consumer laws.
Buying medicines online and the law
It's illegal to import some medicines, such as steroids and antibiotics, for example.
Things to consider when buying medicines online
Before buying medicines online, check to see if the pharmacy is based in Australia and that it is a legitimate business.
The website should ideally show a physical address in Australia, an email address, a working phone number and more details about the company, such as an Australian Business Number (ABN). Check that you can ask questions over the phone.
Check if you need to provide a prescription. Australian-based pharmacies only sell prescription medicines online if you provide a valid Australian prescription.
Also think about how it will affect you if the post is delayed and you don't receive your medicine in time.
How can I safely buy medicines online?
Follow these four steps:
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before buying medicines online.
- If you want to buy medicines online, buy them from a company based in Australia. Investigate the company thoroughly.
- If you're thinking of buying from overseas, check the Office of Drug Control's list of drugs and ingredients that can't be imported into Australia unless you have permission.
- Be wary of wild claims — if a therapeutic product or a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Where to get help
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: April 2019