How can I test mail-order medications for purity?
March 2, 2007 10:30 PM   Subscribe

Is there an easy, inexpensive way to check if the meds I order from overseas by are real? For example, would the solution linked below be something a total novice could do? How could I actually learn the process? (and please, no lectures on whether ordering from overseas is good idea. That's what I'm trying to find out.) thanks.
posted by soulbarn to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: oopd. here's the item I was asking about:
posted by soulbarn at 10:34 PM on March 2, 2007

It would depend on the medication, but in general the answer to your question is "probably not". There's a big business out there in the world in making and selling counterfeit drugs, and in the case of pills they can look exactly like the real thing but contain no active ingredient, or, contain something else. For instance, it used to be common for counterfeit amphetamine tablets to contain ephedrine.

North Korea has been involved in this. It's one of several businesses their government has gotten involved in as a way of getting hard currency, along with refining and selling heroin, counterfeiting US currency, and selling medium range missiles.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:05 PM on March 2, 2007

As to that article, it's the kind of thing we've seen thousands of time before: "We might, just might, have a real breakthrough here, if only someone will give us a whopping research grant."

Maybe something will come of it, maybe not. It won't be soon.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:20 PM on March 2, 2007

I can't really answer your question but I can tell you I get my meds from They work very well.
posted by Jess the Mess at 3:32 AM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

You might check the PDR (Physician's Desk Reference) for their pictures of various tablets...
posted by objdoc at 5:10 AM on March 3, 2007

would the solution linked below be something a total novice could do?

Most are going to require lab equipment you're unlikely to have around the house, unless you have a really interesting house. Lots of folks are working on this, but all of the solutions I've seen (nano-sized markers, e.g.) are aimed at medical centers and pharmaceutical companies with lots of equipment.

(Btw, Steven's characterization of that article strikes me as a little ridiculous; he seems to like doing the casual tossed-off scorn thing about a lot of research; I wouldn't trust his take. You still won't be able to do that kind of thing at home any time soon, though.)
posted by mediareport at 6:17 AM on March 3, 2007

The refractometer method would probably work fine until lots of people started using it. Then the counterfeiters would find it worth their while to start aping the density of the real drug, just like they already do size, markings, and shape. Doing so sounds trivial to me.
posted by grouse at 6:48 AM on March 3, 2007

I'm in pharmacy school, and we hear a lot about counterfeit meds. I've never heard of a way to test them without real lab equipment. Not to say such a thing doesn't exist but I haven't heard of it.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:14 AM on March 3, 2007

I don't know a way to test them yourself, but if you're just looking for peace of mind that you're getting real and correct meds, this might help. I recently read this blurb on the Terra Sigillata blog:

If you're willing to spend a few bucks, an independent consumer rating subscription service called is a reputable resource for buying drugs from Canada or other online pharmacies. Established by the founder of the dietary supplement rating service,, PharmacyChecker provides detailed information on licensure and 40 other characteristics they have verified regarding specific site (ficitious sample evaluation of and are illustrated here). A 90-day trial subscription is $15 but it seems that the 12-month membership for $19.95 is the better deal. (Disclosure: I have no financial relationship with either ConsumerLab or PharmacyChecker, but have recommended and subscribed to ConsumerLab for several years.)
posted by diamondsky at 12:10 PM on March 3, 2007

Seems like the only really good way to tell what you've got would be to use a mass spectrometer, and those aren't exactly cheap. I'd say maybe you could ask around at the local university and see if perhaps you could find a professor who'd run an analysis for you, but these days I doubt you'd find anyone willing, because of the obvious liability problems. Unless you know someone personally who'd be willing to do it on the down low, that's probably not going to happen. (And I'd never recommend that you ask, because it would probably mean them risking their job.)

Any sort of test you can easily perform, can also be easily performed by the people making the counterfeits. E.g., I'm sure they have copies of the PDR and can fake things like the density, solubility, pH, etc.

Definitely a tough problem.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:15 PM on March 3, 2007

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