Savings versus safety - Buying meds on eBay - (9/17/2019)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Mrs. Kester came into the pharmacy to ask the pharmacist a question. “You know that Howard and I are always trying to save money. But lately, he has been buying our over-the-counter medicines from eBay. I wouldn’t mind but I noticed that his allergy pills had an expiration date 3 months from now. What will happen if he takes them after the expiration date? Will they work?” 

The pharmacist appreciates that the Kesters are thrifty. However, he is more concerned about the quality of the goods they are receiving. Drug expiration dates exist on most medication labels, including prescription, over-the-counter and dietary (herbal) supplements. The expiration date is the final date that the manufacturer guarantees the full potency and safety of a medication. The law requires that American pharmaceutical manufacturers place expiration dates on products prior to marketing. For legal and liability reasons, manufacturers will not make recommendations about the stability of drugs past the original expiration date. But, for most products, the expiration date is arbitrary, usually several years from its production, and is based on how long the manufacturer elects to test the product’s stability. In truth, the stability of the drug may be much longer, but no one wants to spend the money test it.

For most products, potency is difficult if not impossible to assess. Aspirin is arguably the only medication that you can tell has deteriorated because it smells like vinegar. For other products, such as Mr. Kester’s allergy pills, one can only tell if the product works or not. If his usual brand takes an hour to kick in, but he is still sneezing 6 hours after taking the “bargain brand,” then the purchase was not a bargain at all. 

Solid dosage forms, such as tablets and capsules, appear to be the most stable past their expiration date. Drugs that exist in solution or as a reconstituted suspension, and that require refrigeration (such as amoxicillin suspension), may not have the required potency if used when outdated. Loss of potency can be a major health concern, especially when treating an infection with an antibiotic. Discard medications that are in a solution if the product settles or looks cloudy or discolored. Expired medications that contain preservatives, such as eye drops, may be unsafe past their expiration date. Outdated preservatives do not protect against bacterial growth in the solution.

What are the factors you should consider when buying products from eBay or other on-line vendors? Contamination: Where was the product manufactured? Can you be certain it is not counterfeit? Sterility: Many different items, from eye and face care products to baby care goods are typically sold as sterile at retail and most of their consumers would generally prefer that they are sterile. Because goods on eBay are often sourced through alternative channels or from alternative suppliers, their sterility may be less definite than that of items found at your local pharmacy. If a medication is essential for a chronic and potentially life-threatening disease, for example, a heart condition, cancer treatment, seizure, or life-threatening allergy, use your local and trusted pharmacy.

The good thing about eBay is that you can ask questions of the sellers before you buy and even give them a bad review if you are not happy. So, sellers tend to behave and send out acceptable goods. However, as the pharmacist told Mrs. Kester, while it is good to be economical, it pays to be aware of any meds that one puts on or into one’s body. She will alert her husband as to what she learned. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Read more at


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