Drug marketing and physician survey data were used to examine trends in the use and hormonal content of oral contraceptives in the United States between 1964 and 1988. Retail prescriptions for oral contraceptives peaked at approximately 68 million in 1973 and have remained between 50 million and 60 million since 1981. Despite this relative consistency in the number of prescriptions, physician "mentions" of oral contraceptives have increased by approximately 75 percent. This increase may reflect closer monitoring of women on oral contraceptives. Use of multiphasic formulations has steadily risen, accounting for 37 percent of the oral contraceptive prescriptions in 1988. Mean estrogen and progestin doses in all types of formulations have steadily declined. A change in the type of estrogen and progestin used in preparations has coincided with this decline in dose. The association between age and use of high-dose formulations seen in the past was no longer evident in 1988. The data demonstrate that oral contraceptive formulations in wide use today differ in hormone content from those of the past, when most of the major studies addressing the risks associated with oral contraceptive use were completed. There is therefore a need to determine the risks and long-term effects associated with these newer formulations.