The effects have been studied of various environmental factors on the variability in response to oral contraceptive steroid therapy in women. Ten- to thirty-fold variations in plasma concentrations of norethisterone, L-norgestrel and ethinyloestradiol have been shown in samples taken 12 h after administration of oral contraceptives in mid-menstrual cycle. Factors shown to be responsible for this variation include passage into the enterohepatic circulation, a variable first-pass effect, and changes in metabolism in the gut wall or liver due to diet, disease, smoking or administration of drugs. Phenobarbitone and the antibiotic rifampicin increase both oestrogen and progestogen metabolism in women and in experimental animals by increasing hepatic and gut wall metabolism. In animals, other antibiotics (ampicillin, neomycin and lincomycin) suppress the gut flora that normally hydrolyse steroid conjugates excreted in bile; enterohepatic circulation or oral contraceptive steroids is thus reduced and their plasma concentrations lowered by up to 90%. In the human, ampicillin has a variable but less dramatic effect on elimination of oral contraceptives. Samples of gut wall mucosa obtained from patients with coeliac disease are defective in their ability to metabolize oral contraceptives. Cigarette smokers eliminate ethinyloestradiol more rapidly than non-smokers; an increased production of reactive steroid metabolites may thus be a cause of vascular disease in women who smoke and take contraceptive steroids.