6 Differences Between American ‘Drugstores’ and British ‘Chemists’

Liquor and party favors in your local 'chemist'? We're not in Clapham anymore, Toto (Photo via Long Beach Louie)

Liquor and party favors in your local ‘chemist’? We’re not in Boots anymore, Toto. (Photo via Long Beach Louie)

In Britain, one would pop to the chemist to tend to their everyday ailments, whereas in America, you’d swing by the more dangerous sounding “drugstore” to get your meds. In principle, the two serve the same purpose, but there are many differences between the British and American pharmaceutical experience.

American drugstores moonlight as convenience stores
The fundamental difference between U.S. and U.K. pharmacies is that in the States, the establishments masquerade as general convenience stores where you can get everyday essentials like cat food, cockroach traps and Christina Aguilera’s new fragrance, 24 hours a day. In Britain, on the other hand, the chemist remains a place one doesn’t want to frequent, because if you’re there, it’s to pick up a prescription.

Drugstores in the U.S. are fun for all the family
In America, pharmacies are huge, kid-friendly places with shelves stacked full of crappy plastic toys and just about every conceivable candy bar. It is not a place little ones fear; on the contrary, a trip to Rite Aid is met from the backseat with a whoop or two of delight. Chemists in Britain, however, have bored-looking, sometimes weepy, always snotty children fidgeting in chairs while their mum waits for the prescription to cure their snottiness (and hopefully their fidgets too). The only saving grace for these poor little cherubs is the promise of a lollipop (that for some reason also functions as a whistle before it’s sucked on too much) if they keep their whining to a minimum.

You can get things in Walgreens you’d never get in Boots
“They sell cigarettes and alcohol in a chemist?!” That was the medical paradox set before my fresh-off-the-boat eyes during my inaugural visit to a U.S. pharmacy back in the summer of 2007. And frankly, it scared the Brit out of me. How could a store, that by definition exists to sell medicine to sick people, be trading in products that could ultimately kill them? It seemed so unethical.

Fast-forward to present day New York City, and the only time I ever have occasion to use the word “chemist” is if I’m visiting a laboratory. Which is never. It’s “drugstore” now. And I take the convenience of being able to nip there to pick up a six-pack of Heineken for granted.

You say tomato…
As far as everyday pharmaceutical products are concerned there are some classic nuances between American and British names for the same thing. I remember the first time I asked an American for a plaster. Nothing. Zip. Nada. After explaining that I required a small dressing to cover a minor scrape, I was informed that what I needed was a Band-Aid. The charity supergroup formed by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure? No, the brand name term generically used in the U.S. for an adhesive bandage.

Then there was the time I went into a Duane Reade and asked where they kept the Deep Heat. Looking back, I think the cashier thought I was inquiring where I might find the guns. I clarified that I was only interested in purchasing a menthol muscle rub and the cashier told me he had some Ben-Gay on aisle nine. And then I was the confused one.

Possible side effects
Generally speaking, in Britain you need a prescription for something that might actually work, whereas in America, you have the freedom to dose yourself with all kinds of exotic drugs that could have all manner of ludicrous possible side effects. A recent infomercial for a new drug to combat the common cold listed the following: temporary psychosis, gambling addiction, enlargement of the feet, yellowing of the skin and eyes, and, in severe cases, an inexplicable penchant for ‘80’s rock ballads.

Different products
Although I miss not being able to readily get my Britpaws on certain chemist staples—Lucozade, Migraleve, Vaseline lip balm in a tin (which melts in the blistering heat of a New York summer anyway)—there are some American products for which I’m grateful and former expat pals always ask me to bring them when I visit England, a list which includes Neosporin, melatonin, and Crest whitening strips, to name but three items.

Melatonin is an interesting case in point. In most of North America it is sold over-the-counter as a dietary supplement and not as a drug. Whereas in the U.K., it is available only on prescription as the European Economic Community (EEC) hasn’t passed it for safe use because not enough is known about the long-term effects of prolonged consumption.  But then pharmacies in America have to offer a wide range of strong over-the-counter drugs so that the 40 million+ people living here without health insurance have access to medicine without having to first consult a doctor.

What differences have you noticed between pharmacies in the U.K. and the U.S.?  Tell us below:

See more:
A Brit’s Guide to Health Matters in the U.S.: Learning the Lingo
10 Tips for Brits on Surviving the U.S. Healthcare System

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Jon Langford

Jon Langford is a British expat living in NYC where he is often asked if he’s Australian on account of his Yorkshire accent. He is a freelance copywriter and journalist, and has been published in many sports and pop culture outlets including Major League Soccer, Time Out magazine, Inked magazine and Smitten by Britain. As bassist of alternative rock group The Chevin he has toured the world over, appearing on Conan, the Late Show with David Letterman and Last Call with Carson Daly. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_LangfordNYC.
View all posts by Jon Langford.
  • Stacey

    There are no “meal deals” at drug stores in the U.S. as far as I know! I love the meal deal at Boots in the U.K. Perfect for a lowly unpaid intern living in London! :)

  • Michelle Fishman-Cross

    Last I know you can’t buy rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) over the counter in the UK but can do so in the US.

    • Gonzolio Martinez

      Surgical Spirit is widely available OTC in the UK

      • mjhoop

        Oh, that language barrier again!

  • Linda

    No beer or liquor at drugstores in New Jersey!!

  • Jason Eugene Silvey

    There are still plenty of pharmacies that are just pharmacies in the U.S. This makes it sound like America is a crazy carnival of drug stores.

    • Jude

      There are? Where? I’ve never seen one. And I’m American.

      • $15315292

        A few independents. They’re not common.

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

          We have a few in the Chicago area but they tend to supplement sales with expensive trinket-y personal hygiene items (and call themselves Apothecaries). The only one in my area that’s lasted more than a year also does pet meds, and that’s where they make their money.

      • Jason Eugene Silvey

        My town in Illinois has at least three businesses that are just pharmacies. There are numerous pharmacies in the surrounding communities as well. And yes, we also have bigger chains like Walgreens and CVS as well as retailers and grocery stores that have pharmacy departments, but in this part of the country, dedicated pharmacies never faded.

  • $15315292

    There’s a reason for that. “Back in the day” when blue laws were rife, “drugstores” were ordinarily exempt and were allowed to open on Sundays and holidays when everyone else was required to be closed. So since people were coming in anyway, they just might need a quart of milk. And maybe a loaf of bread. And oh, I’m halfway through this casserole and discovered I didn’t have a can of Cream of Mushroom soup (anyone knows *all* casseroles have cream of Mushroom soup in them ;-).) As such they served as convenience stores before there was such a thing and the custom continued even though most blue laws have fallen by the wayside.

  • Krista Kay Anderson

    The alcohol thing depends on the state. Like New Jersey, Minnesota also does not have alcohol for sale in drugstores. (And you also can’t buy hard liquor at grocery stores, or buy ANY alcohol ANYWHERE on Sundays!) I was pretty shocked to see the alcohol at Walgreens in Illinois. I agree that cigarettes and alcohol at pharmacies seems pretty bizarre.

    • frozen01

      It can even vary from town to town. I’m in the western ‘burbs of Chicago, and it’s not unheard of to have one suburb that is “dry” while the next one isn’t. Dry can have multiple meanings: No liquor sold on Sundays, liquor can only be purchased from certain locations or during certain hours, etc.
      That never made sense to me, because all you had to do was drive to the next town or go to a bar (which kind of promotes drunk driving).

  • taews

    I’ve seen Boots stores that sold clothing! (High Street Kensington) And plenty of them have luxury cosmetics beyond the cheap Rimmel brands: Lancome, Clinique, Clarins, etc. In the US, those are only sold at higher-end department stores.

    • Claire

      In the past larger Boots stores sold everything from swim wear to home brewing kits with crockery and photo processing somewhere in between. The smaller Boots are primarily just pharmacy, toiletries and some make-up.

  • Jack Cooke

    Last time I was in London they were selling opioid analgesics OTC. That will never happen here-much better to go to ER/Casualty-ridiculous doctor’s lobby

    • mjhoop

      Try to get a pain-killer in a US ER/Casualty these days? You’ll die first. They are so over-the-top about drug abuse they can be cruel to someone w/ a medical pain emergency.

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

    Apart from Melatonin, I used to think that the UK sold “harder” pharmaceuticals than the US. My American doctor was horrified to learn that you could buy codeine OTC in the UK. However, this summer, as I went to Boots to purchase some erm, Feminax, (which used to be so strong that I could only take half the prescribed dose if I wanted to function) they had taken the good stuff out of it and all it had was ibuprofen. Pah!

    • Sarah

      You can buy Robitussin AC (Cheratussin AC) over the counter in the US; some pharmacies have 4 oz bottles that you can buy if you sign a register. You can only have one of those bottles in 48 hrs, but its done. It isn’t surprising your doctor was shocked. I have worked in pharmacies for a few years now, and doctors (non-pharamcy healthcare workers in general) don’t know as much as they should about pharm. law/practice.

      • KareBear

        Ah, the dreaded register sign. Do Brits have this nonsense too, I wonder? OTC 24hr allergy meds with a decongestant (usually pseudoephedrine) requires you fork over your ID then sign something. For allergy medicine! You’d think it was plutonium, the way it’s guarded. Want to get one month’s supply at a whack? Too bad! You can only get it every 10 (or 15, if you’re lucky enough to find a store that stocks it) days and not a nanosecond before. Since I live in the inland southeast, I need it every day of my life so I have to stand in line every 10 days, dig out my license, sign, etc. It drives me crazy!

  • Brittany

    Only the state is allowed to sell alcohol. Regular stores may not. (Pennsylvania)

    • Sarah E. Pierson

      Please don’t say that as a blanket statement. It depends on what state you are in as to who is allowed to sell alcohol. I know Utah only has state owned liquor stores but in many states that is not the case.

      • Brittany

        I put Pennsylvania in parenthesis.

        • gn

          Pennsylvania, Utah, and some counties in Maryland are the only jurisdictions in the US where all alcohol sales are run by the state. In a few other states, the restriction applies to spirits only. For the vast majority of Americans, alcohol of any kind can be bought in stores like any other product.

  • June

    On a recent trip back to UK I cut my foot, and found I could not purchase antibiotic ointment without a prescription. Took forever to heal. Memo to self, pack antibiotic ointment next time.

    • BritChemUser

      plenty of antiseptic (which is what you may mean) creams and lotions without a prescription. e.g. Sudocrem, Savlon etc.
      If you called it ‘antibiotic’ ointment then that is why they may have said you need a prescription from a doctor. Only doctors can prescribe antibiotics, for good reason.

      • Sarah

        No they mean antibiotic. Neosporin is bacitracin/polymixin B/neomycin. There is also plain bacitracin available.

  • gn

    They sell cigarettes and alcohol in a chemist?!” … How could a store, that by definition exists to sell medicine to sick people, be trading in products that could ultimately kill them?

    I hate to break it to you, but most medicines will kill you far more quickly than will tobacco or alcohol. Paracetamol/acetaminophen overdose is one of the most common causes of poisoning in the world.

  • Kelsey

    To my American ears, “chemist” sounds almost sinister, like an evil scientist or something! Language differences are sometimes so funny (and charming) :)

  • Letitia Landers-King

    Note that the term “drug store” is not so commonly used any more, since “drugs” has a negative connotation. It’s more commonly called a “pharmacy” nowadays.
    Have you seen US supermarkets with pharmacies? Also, Walmart (Asda in UK) has a big corner on the pharmacy market. I take it Asda doesn’t sell prescriptions, then? Similar stores like Target, as well as discount clubs (Sam’s, Costco) also have pharmacies.

  • dp

    The “they don’t double as convenience stores” was a problem for me when I spent the summer in Germany. I ran out of shampoo and thought I’d just pop down to the nearest Apotheke to pick up a new bottle… But of course they didn’t have any.

    Is Boots really the only drugstore chain in GB? We have at least four- Rite Aid, Walgreens, Duane Reade and Eckerds- plus a number of mom & pop operations scattered across the country and pharmacies in many chain stores like WalMart and Target.

    • dp

      Excuse me, five chains- forgot CVS. Some places that have a large number of GPs- such as hospital professional buildings- will also have an in-house pharmacy that you can go to- but the prices here may be elevated.

    • Paula Louise Neale

      No, we have Boots, Superdrug and Lloyds. There may be more in the north but I am a Londoner and don’t venture past the Watford Gap!

  • gn

    One difference that may not be relevant any more: when I lived in the UK, “chemists” also sold photographic supplies (well, they’re chemicals, so why not?)

    As far as I can tell, US drugstores have never done this.

    Probably no one outside very specialist stores sells photographic supplies these days.

    • mjhoop

      But U.S. chain drugstores do photo processing. And take passport photos.

      • frozen01

        They also sell film, disposable cameras, and camera supplies such as cheap tripods, batteries, memory cards, and so forth.

  • Louie Baur

    Wow that is a great looking picture!

  • vegemighty

    I’m an American and I call myself a “chemist”. I have a degree in chemistry. I work with chemicals. What do you call someone like me in England?

    • Barry

      In the UK someone who works in the Chemist is a pharmacist, The store is the chemist not the person, but a person who is a chemist works in a Lab

  • Jade M

    Two words: Isopropyl alcohol, aka rubbing alcohol. You can get that at any drugstore in the US. I can buy it at my local Duane Reade 24/7. In London NO ONE sells it. And whenever I ask, I’d get the raised eyebrow reply: “What do you use it for?” It is available for sale on-line, for more than quadruple what it costs in my native NYC. And NY is not exactly a cheap place to buy things. It drives my crazy that I can’t buy it in London, not even Boots carries it. And hydrogen peroxide is only available in tiny little bottles, behind the Chemists counter, and cost double what it costs in NY. WTF. Are these items considered dangerous in the UK?