Risks of buying natural health products online

Many natural health product websites are lawful businesses, but some sell products that may present serious health risks. Learn about the risks of buying natural health products (NHPs) online and how to identify licensed products.

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Risks of buying online

When buying NHPs online, you may not have access to the product's warnings and directions for safe use. This missing information can lead to unwanted side effects when using the product.

Other risks include receiving products that:

  • come from an unknown or potentially dangerous source
  • are past their expiry date
  • list the wrong ingredients or fail to list dangerous additives
  • are contaminated
  • do not work or are of low quality

There is also a risk that the NHP may:

  • not be authorized for sale in Canada
  • be counterfeit

If you buy NHPs online or from outside of Canada, you should know that:

  • some countries may not require evidence that NHPs work, are safe or are of high quality
  • products may make health claims that are not allowed to be made in Canada
  • products may contain different ingredients from the Canadian version

Natural product numbers and licensing

Canada regulates NHPs sold nationally. To be sold legally in Canada, NHPs must have a product licence. It is proof that we have reviewed the safety of the product. Either an 8-digit natural product number (NPN) or homeopathic medicine number (DIN-HM) will appear on the product label.

Figure 1: NPN

Figure 1 description

Left justified at the top of the image is the example product name Vitamin C. Vitamin is bold black and the C is bold green.

There is a thick purple rule under the words Vitamin C. Under this line, the phrase open quotation mark A factor in the maintenance of good health close quotation mark is vertically centered and in regular type.

The next line is 90 capsules in a smaller font size and regular type. 90 capsules is left justified.

There is a thick purple rule under 90 capsules. Under this line is NPN 12345678, which is right justified. The NPN number is circled in red to indicate how a product license number may appear on the label of a natural health product. This is the end of the image.

Figure 2: DIN-HM

Figure 2 description

The background of the image is green on the top half and is white on the bottom half. Left justified at the top of the image is the example product name Arnica montana in green bold. The next line is Homeopathic Medicine in italics. To the right on the same line is DIN-HM 01234567. The DIN-HM number is circled in red to indicate how a product license number may appear on the label of a homeopathic product. This is the end of the image.

Minimize your risks

If you buy NHPs online, follow these tips to lower your risk of buying unsafe products.

  • Look for websites that show you all of the information that appears on a product label. This includes:
    • the recommended use or purpose of the product
    • how to use the product safely
    • warnings about why someone should not use the product with other drugs or because of an existing health condition
  • Only buy NHPs that have an NPN or DIN-HM on the label. If the website does not have this information, contact the seller to ask for the 8-digit product licence number. Check this number against Health Canada's database for licensed NHPs.
  • If you buy NHPs from outside of Canada, know the guidelines for importing them. Otherwise, you may not be allowed to bring them into Canada.

As with any health product, speak with your health care provider if you have questions about the product. This will help you avoid taking something that may interact with medications or other products that you are already taking.

Report a concern

Report a complaint about the quality or safety of a health product using the health product complaint form. This includes the sale of unlicensed products and products with unapproved health claims.

You can also report negative side effects through MedEffect Canada.

If you would like more information, contact us toll-free at 1-800-267-9675.

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