What is the law on the sale of medicines?

The Medicines Act 1968 defines three legal categories of medicines:

  • general sales list medicines (GSL)
  • pharmacy medicines (P)
  • prescription only medicines (POM)

Under this act, most medicines can only be sold or supplied at a pharmacy under the supervision of a pharmacist. However, some medicines (GSL) can be sold at other premises, such as supermarkets, as long as they’re pre-packed and the premises can be closed to exclude the public. It’s illegal to sell medicines from market stalls or from vehicles, such as at car boot sales.

General sales list medicines

GSL medicines can be sold by a wide range of shops, such as newsagents, supermarkets and petrol stations. Often, only a small pack size or low strength of the medicine may be sold. For example:

  • the largest pack size of paracetamol that shops can sell is 16 tablets but pharmacies can sell packs of 32 tablets
  • the highest strength of ibuprofen tablets that shops can sell is 200mg but pharmacies can sell tablets at 400mg strength

Pharmacy medicines

Only pharmacies may sell these medicines and a pharmacist must make or supervise the sale.

You’ll be asked if you have any medical conditions or take any other medicines, to check that it’s safe for you to take the medicine. For example, some nasal decongestant medicines can raise your blood pressure, so you’ll be asked if you have high blood pressure before being sold the medicine.

Some pharmacy medicines may only be sold if the pharmacist is satisfied that you meet the criteria for that medicine.

For other medicines, the pharmacist may suggest that you see your GP. For example, if you’ve used clotrimazole pessaries for vaginal thrush more than twice in six months, you should see your GP so they can decide whether this is the most appropriate treatment.

Prescription only medicines

You cannot get these medicines without a prescription, usually from your GP. However, in some cases, your medicine may be prescribed by your dentist, a nurse, pharmacist or other healthcare professional.

Some prescription-only medicines are classed as controlled drugs, such as morphine, pethidine and methadone. Stricter legal controls apply to these medicines.

Reclassifying medicines

Some medicines are reclassified from:

  • prescription only to pharmacy
  • from pharmacy to general sales list

This may happen after several years when it's known that the medicine is safe for most people to use. For example, aciclovir cream (used to treat cold sores) was first available as a POM. After a few years, it was reclassified as a pharmacy medicine and later it was reclassified again to GSL.

Read the answers to more questions about medicines.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 01/11/2013

Next review due: 31/10/2015