The major developments in combined oral contraceptives (COCs) have been a reduction in the total dose of both the oestrogen and progestogen administered per cycle and the introduction of new progestogens which are claimed to be more 'selective' than the older ones. This review examines in detail the clinical efficacy of the new COCs, where possible in comparison with those containing levonorgestrel or norethisterone, and their pharmacological effect on carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, haematological factors, pituitary-ovarian function and serum protein and androgen concentrations. Based mainly on the pharmacological evidence, the newer COCs are an improvement over the older low-dose formulations and are clearly preferable to the high-dose ones. However, the older low-dose COCs, despite many years of use, have not resulted in a high incidence of adverse effects. The increasing use of the new COCs, as evidenced by their increasing market share throughout Europe, does indicate that they have been well accepted in clinical practice.