To avoid the risks of conventional hormone therapy, more and more women are seeking alternatives. But how safe are compounded bioidentical hormones?
When women enter menopause, their bodies produce less estrogen and progesterone. This can cause hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia and other symptoms. Hormone therapy can supplement those hormones, but it increases the risk of breast cancer and other serious diseases. What are your options if the symptoms of menopause are difficult to cope with?
In 2002, a major research study reported that FDA-approved hormone therapy can increase a woman’s risk of heart disease, breast cancer, and stroke. (For more information, please visit: Hormone Therapy and Menopause). As a result, women started to look for alternatives to conventional hormone therapy. Custom-compounded bioidentical hormone therapy (CBHT) has been marketed as more natural and safer, but does the scientific evidence support those claims?
Natural and Safe?
Many of the hormones used in conventional hormone therapy are derived from animal products. Bioidentical hormones, on the other hand, are from plants and are more similar (although not necessarily identical) to the hormones that naturally occur in the human body. However, the term “bioidentical” is misleading and has no scientific value. Bioidenticals are created in laboratories through at least 15 chemical reactions, and they are not identical to hormones produced by human bodies.1,2 To date, no studies have shown that bioidenticals are safer than conventional hormone therapy and experts used to assume they have similar benefits and risks for patients.3,4
The FDA asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to form a committee that would assess whether cBHT is an adequate substitute for the traditional therapies that are FDA-approved. In 2020, the committee issued a report that there was not sufficient data to say that cBHT is a safe and effective treatment for menopause. Although some people have reported anecdotal claims that cBHT is safe and effective, these anecdotes are not scientific data.5
The Pros and Cons of Compounding
Some bioidentical hormones (such as small particles of progesterone and estradiol) have been approved by the FDA,1 but most are not. Instead, they are prescribed as a compound with ingredients that are mixed and blended by pharmacies to “create a customized medication for an individual patient.”6,7 Since compounding is used to make individualized medication, it is not approved by the FDA. Compounding of some medications is necessary for some patients, such as patients who are allergic to one component of an approved drug or who need a particular dosage that differs from the FDA-approved medicine. However, since it is not monitored the way an FDA-approved drug is, compounded drugs are not proven to be safe or effective.7
Women who are considering compounded bioidentical hormones often start by getting their individual hormone levels checked through saliva or serum tests. This may create the impression that the bioidentical drugs will be customized for each patient, but research has not shown that these hormonal tests are meaningful or can ensure a safe or effective product.1,3
Risks Through Compounding
In addition to not being approved by the FDA as safe or effective, compounded drugs have an additional risk of being contaminated3 or having an inaccurate dosage.6 Either can be dangerous. Since compounded drugs are not FDA-approved, they also lack warnings on labels about possible side effects, including serious ones.1,8 Several of the ingredients that are commonly used in bioidentical hormones – such as testosterone – have not been approved by the FDA for use for postmenopausal women.3
Despite these concerns, many women have been prescribed bioidentical hormones for menopause. That’s why the FDA announced in 2018 that they will expand research on compounded bioidentical hormone therapy.9
How Do I Know If My Hormone Therapy Has Been Compounded?
Compounded bioidentical drugs are legal if they are in response to a doctor’s prescription.7 It is unlawful for a pharmacy to simply give you modified drugs without consent. However, even if it is legal, that doesn’t mean it will be safe or effective. If you have any questions or concerns about your hormone therapy, you should talk to your doctor or pharmacist.10
You can recognize FDA-approved hormone therapy by the use of brand names such as Premarin, Vagifem and Estrace. The bioidenticals micronized progesterone (brand name Prometrium) and estradiol (brand name Vivelle) have also been approved by the FDA. If your medication has been compounded, you will see terms such as estrone, estradiol, testosterone or progesterone instead of brand names. You are probably receiving CBHT if you have been asked for a saliva or serum test to establish an individualized treatment course.1,2
Traditional hormone therapy can be effective for menopausal symptoms, but can increase the risk of cancer and other serious diseases. Bioidentical hormones may have the same risks. You can find more information on the FDA-approved hormone therapies here.
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
The National Center for Health Research is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research, education and advocacy organization that analyzes and explains the latest medical research and speaks out on policies and programs. We do not accept funding from pharmaceutical companies or medical device manufacturers. Find out how you can support us here.
- American College of Obstetricians. (2012). Compounded bioidentical menopausal hormone therapy. Fertility and Sterility, 98(2), 308-312. (reaffirmed in 2018)
- Gass, M. L., Stuenkel, C. A., Utian, W. H., LaCroix, A., Liu, J. H., & Shifren, J. L. (2015). Use of compounded hormone therapy in the United States: report of the North American Menopause Society Survey. Menopause, 22(12), 1276-1285.
- Pinkerton, J. V., & Pickar, J. H. (2016). Update on medical and regulatory issues pertaining to compounded and FDA-approved drugs, including hormone therapy. Menopause (New York, NY), 23(2), 215.
- National Institute on Aging. (June 2017). Hot Flashes: What Can I Do? Retrieved from: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/hot-flashes-what-can-i-do#risks
- The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (July 2020). Report: The Clinical Utility of Compounded Bioidentical Hormone Therapy (cBHT) A Review of Safety, Effectiveness, and Use. Retrieved from: https://www.nap.edu/resource/25791/cBHT%20Consensus%20Study%20Report%20Highlights.pdf
- FDA (June 2018). Report: Limited FDA Survey of Compounded Drug Products. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/human-drug-compounding/report-limited-fda-survey-compounded-drug-products
- FDA (June 2018). Compounding and the FDA: Questions and Answers. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/human-drug-compounding/compounding-and-fda-questions-and-answers.
- FDA (June 2018). Compounding Oversight. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/human-drug-compounding/compounding-oversight
- FDA (September 2018). FDA announces new and expanded compounding research projects. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-announces-new-and-expanded-compounding-research-projects
- FDA (February 2018). Menopause: Medicines to Help You. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/free-publications-women/menopause-medicines-help-you