With the growing popularity of online shopping, the Internet has increasingly become a medium for the selling of health products such as western medicines, health supplements and traditional medicines.

Nowadays, health products are easily available through various Internet platforms, such as company-based or e-commerce websites, online pharmacies, online auction sites/classified ads, discussion fora, blogs, and social media.

The borderless nature of the Internet makes it difficult to authenticate sellers and the safety and quality of the products. Consumers are strongly advised to exercise care and caution when purchasing medicines and other health products over the Internet as these products could be counterfeit or contaminated with banned substances.

Risks of Buying Medicines and Health Products from Dubious or Unknown Websites

1. You could be buying products that contain dangerous, even deadly, ingredients.

A disturbing possibility associated with health products from dubious or unknown websites is that you might not be getting what you paid for in the first place. Laboratory tests have revealed that health products bought online may contain banned and dangerous additives. There have also been instances of counterfeit medicines containing no or wrong active ingredients, or expired products being sold to unsuspecting buyers.

Related: Understanding Health Supplements

2. You know very little about the seller, and where/how the product was manufactured.

Medicines and health products bought from unfamiliar or unknown sources online are usually supplied by dubious companies or persons. There is no knowing where the products are from, or the conditions under which they were manufactured and stored. There is also no way of keeping track of these online dealers, or contacting them if problems arise.

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3. You could be buying products that have not been assessed for their safety and have not been approved for use locally.

There are additional risks when buying medicines from overseas websites. Do note that while the medicine may be approved for sale in its country of origin, it might not be approved for use locally. Your package may also be detained by the immigration authorities when it arrives in Singapore.

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Be a Smart Consumer!

HSA strongly encourages consumers not to place price, convenience and privacy above their health. Be cautious when shopping online and buy from websites with established retail presence.

Here are four things you can do as a smart consumer:

1. Avoid unknown or unfamiliar online sources selling western medicines.

All western medicines require approval from HSA before they can be marketed legally in Singapore. While they may share similar names and appearances as those sold at clinics, most medicines sold through unknown websites or those without an established retail presence are unlikely to have been assessed by HSA for their safety, quality and effectiveness. Consumers might have no way of tracking how these online stores get their supply of medicines and how safe these sources are.

It is especially important if you are buying prescription medicines as these products contain potent pharmaceutical ingredients. It can be very dangerous to take them without being monitored by a doctor.

As a general rule, be cautious when purchasing health products from unfamiliar or unknown sources online, even if they are recommended by friends or relatives. You cannot be certain what these products contain, and where and how they were made. They could contain potent ingredients, or could be counterfeit or substandard.

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2. Beware of "free consultations" and "special offers" from online sources.

These include:

  • Online pharmacies which offer free medical consultation and prescription medicines without a physical consultation.

  • Random websites, auction sites and electronic flyers sent through email that offers products for sale at prices that are significantly lower than the cost of the same products sold at registered clinics and established pharmacies.

  • Spam email solicitations, forum postings and "blog shops" that involve unknown persons or dealers with no identifiable contact details.

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3. Do not be misled by product claims, regardless of how convincing and sensible they may sound.

"Scientific Evidence" Claims

Many online pharmacies and websites feature information promoting the safety and effectiveness of their products. Some may claim that their products were developed based on "scientific studies" and "evidence". Others may even make reference to medical journals that published research articles on the products. Such details are usually not verifiable, and may not be accurate or authentic. Chances are the scientific studies were never even conducted, and the journals that supposedly carried the findings are bogus.

"100%" Claims

Online dealers who claim that their products are "100% effective" or "100% safe" are unfortunately not painting an accurate picture because no product can be risk-free.

Similarly, "natural" or "herbal" health supplements sold online have been found laced with potent medicinal ingredients.

"Miracle" Claims

Be wary of online sources selling products with claims such as, "miracle cures" for serious diseases, health supplements that provide "quick fix" solutions for fast weight loss, or skin whitening products that give "immediate effects".

"Personal Success Story" Claims

Online dealers may employ gimmicks to encourage people to buy their products. Be wary of personal testimonials about "guaranteed quick results". Comments and feedback left at online chat rooms and forums on the "effectiveness" of products purchased from the Internet should always be viewed with some scepticism regardless of how convincing they may sound.

Related: Dangers of Illegal Health Products Posing as Natural or Traditional Cures

4. See your doctor or pharmacist for your medical condition

"Playing doctor" using online remedies and self-medicating with medicines and other health products bought from dubious or unknown online sources is dangerous. Not only could you misdiagnose your condition, but putting off a visit to the doctor may be harmful as it delays the correct treatment to help you get better. You may also inadvertently increase the likelihood of an adverse reaction if you take medicines that interact with each other or with other foods.

As no medicine or health product (including those bought from licensed sources) is completely risk-free, you should always seek medical advice from your doctor if you have questions or concerns.

What Can You Do When Problems Arise?

If you have developed an allergy or unwanted side effect after taking a medicine or health product that you bought from the Internet, stop taking it immediately and consult your doctor.

HSA would also like to encourage you to partner us in our efforts to combat illegal, counterfeit and substandard health products sold online. You can report any suspicious sale of medicines and health products to HSA at Tel: 6866 3485 or email: hsa_is@hsa.gov.sg.

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