/ Health, Shopping

Cough! The health products you don’t need

Selection of health products

We Brits spend about £3bn a year on over-the-counter pharmacy products, yet our snapshot research found popular products making claims that our experts don’t think are backed up by sufficient evidence.

I’ve got a cough and cold but what to do? There’s a bewildering array of products on the shelves at my local pharmacy, but what’s actually scientifically proven to work, and should I just keep my money in my wallet?

We bought popular health remedies from chemists, and our expert panel examined the claims made on them. They found no compelling evidence that convinced them any of these products were needed.

Where’s the cough medicine evidence?

For example, our experts examined the published evidence for cough medicines Benylin Tickly Coughs, Benylin Chesty Coughs (both Non-Drowsy) and Covonia Herbal Mucus Cough Syrup, and concluded there’s ‘no robust evidence’ that they do what’s said on the bottle.

And you may be getting more than you bargained for with Benylin Tickly Coughs. Sugar is its main ingredient, with 7.7g (a generous 1.5 teaspoons) in every 10ml dose. If you had an adult’s maximum dose for a week, you’d have eaten the same amount of sugar as in five Mars bars.

So how do these products pass the regulator’s tests? Cough medicines are licensed medicines and the regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), told us the licence-holder is legally required to show them the evidence that they work.

We asked the manufacturers to share the research behind their claims so that our experts could ensure they’d seen all the relevant evidence. The companies declined, saying they had satisfied the regulator who had thoroughly reviewed their clinical evidence.

Companies don’t have to share the evidence they’ve supplied to the MHRA. But what are we to do if we aren’t allowed to see this? How can we know if the science behind what we’re buying is robust enough for us to trust their claims?

Seven Seas, Rescue Remedy and Adios

What else did we find? Well, Seven Seas Jointcare tablets claim to ‘look after your joints’, but our experts concluded that there’s no evidence that its active ingredients can do this.

Our panel said the trials behind Adios, which claims to be a natural way to speed up weight loss, are not robust enough to prove that it’s actually an effective slimming aid. And Bach Rescue Remedy is apparently no more effective at relieving stress than a placebo, according to independent tests.

These products aren’t cheap: Seven Seas Jointcare Be Active is £12.45 for 30 tablets (not even a month’s supply). Adios costs £10.69 for 100 tablets (about a month’s worth).

You can check out these examples and more in our gallery of ten health products we think you don’t need, but make sure to share the ones you think need to be examined.

Health products on a shelf

In the end, manufacturers need to be more transparent so that we can scrutinise what’s really behind their products and make a truly informed decision when we’re after a health remedy.


I wonder what would happen to chemists shops if they did not have these profitable “remedies” to sell?

Thank you for this excellent piece. I have long been amazed at how gullible some people are with regard to supplements and remedies. My local shopping centre has several shops selling Chinese medicine and herbal remedies. I hope you will cover more of these bogus products in future. I was recently badly bruised and about 8 friends recommended arnica. I can find no evidence that it works, and the doctor told me not to bother when I queried it. One person even said it must work because it was sold in Boots!

A current Conversation on the things people take on holiday suggests that 20% of people pack supplements when they go on holiday.


No doubt some of them will also pack some of the ‘health’ products we are discussing.

Dave Crew says:
17 November 2012

I’ve always found the best remedy for a chesty cough is a generic cough syrup called Simple Linctus. It’s not expensive, pleasant to take, can be bought anywhere and is effective after just a few swigs.

First sign of a cold I take 1000mg of Vitamin C. Haven’t had a humdinger for over 20 years now. Also works for cold sores if taken quick enough. Only need to take it for a few days. Also take it for a few days when flying or someone splutters over you in the supermarket.
It is the only health supplement I need.

Have a look at what David C. has to say about vitamin C on the previous page.

I don’t remember having cold sores and I can’t remember when I last had a bad cold. I have not taken vitamin C, other than what is in the food I eat.

I’ve got cold and a very irritating cough right now but the article seems to be warning that nothing can help at all. If this is true, why not say so up front. If on the other hand some remedies (commercial or home-made) can be useful, it would be really helpful to identify them. There seems to be no positive advice at all from Which? in recent years.

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Simon says:
3 June 2014

“Which”, as with so many others, relies too heavily on chemical analysis and laboratory “proof” of a remedy. There is absolutely no respect for people who find benefit in products such as Rescue Remedy, for example.

You appear not to understand people at all! Different things work for different people and different situations.

I have had acupuncture for various problems, and it worked wonderfully for some, but not at all for others. I had a knee problem many years ago: the drugs made no difference, nor even the surgery or physiotherapy (I expected these to help). I came across a magnetic product, and that worked wonders – and has done ever since. Pychological? How could it be? I was fairly open minded about all of it, but only one worked.

People don’t live in laboratories, “Which”, so try to be more open minded and respectful.

You state in your article ” Health products you don’t need” that “if the product licence number is the same on two products, they are the same medicine” so does it follow that if the product licence numbers are different on two products that have same name, they are not the same drug?