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 against a prescription at a pharmacy under the supervision of a pharmacist. However, some medicines (GSL) can be sold at other premises, such as convenience stores, 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, convenience stores 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 without a pharmacist working in them 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 decongestants 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 it is suitable and safe for you to take.

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, midwife or other healthcare professional, such as an optometrist.

Some prescription-only medicines are classed as controlled medicines, such as morphine, pethidine and methadone, due to their potential for abuse. Stricter legal controls apply to these medicines.

Reclassifying medicines

Some medicines have been reclassified from:

  • prescription-only medicine (POM) to pharmacy medicine (P)
  • from pharmacy medicine (P) to general sales list medicine (GSL)

This may happen after several years, when it's known that the medicine is safe for most people to use.

Borderline medical products

Some products are classified as borderline medical products, such as:

  • food supplements
  • herbal products
  • cosmetics

They are classed as borderline medicinal products because they can only be prescribed under very specific circumstances. These products are not subject to the same regulation as medicines.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 26/11/2015

Next review due: 26/11/2017