Context: The illegal market of counterfeit and falsified medicines and supplements containing unlabeled pharmaceuticals is expanding worldwide. They are usually referred to by the term “performance and image enhancing drugs” (PIEDs) and are mainly steroids, stimulants, hormones, and drugs for erectile dysfunction. PIEDs are easily accessible through the online or black markets. We analyzed over 400 such medicines confiscated in Italy in the period 2017–2019, to determine their composition. Methods: Confiscated products were analyzed by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography/high-resolution mass spectrometry, in order to ascertain their composition and to evaluate the correspondence between what was declared on the label and the actual content, or to identify unknown products. Results: The most commonly found substance was anabolic steroids, found in 64% of products, with 11% containing hormone modulators, 6% stimulants, 6% sexual enhancers (mainly sildenafil) and other drugs, including thyroid hormones, melanin stimulators, and vitamins. These substances were often in mixtures. The products were often mislabeled, containing contaminants in addition to the drug declared, or consisted of a drug completely different from the one reported on the label. Fifteen percent of products had a qualitative composition completely different from that declared, while 10% of products showed cross-contamination with other drugs, mainly testosterone esters, probably due to the presence of residues of other drugs in the production line. In addition, 11% of products were not labeled, so their purported composition was unknown. Discussion: PIEDs pose a threat to public health. The main risks are related to the intrinsic toxicity of the substances found, especially when taken without a therapeutic indication. Another issue is related to the mislabeling of the fake medicines, and the poor-quality standard of counterfeit product preparation, with additional risks of the presence of other toxic ingredients or microbial contamination. Conclusions: The use of counterfeit products is a public health concern, as it constitutes a high risk for consumer health. It is mainly caused by the uncontrolled use of steroids, stimulants, sexual enhancers, and other medicaments, without medical indication or supervision, with variable and unknown compositions and doses, as well as other contaminants as a result of the absence of good manufacturing practices.
- Counterfeit and falsified medicines
- androgenic anabolic steroids
- health risk