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Ibuprofen turns 50! Do you buy branded or own-label drugs?

Ibuprofen pills

Ibuprofen turned 50 this year. Over the years it has joined aspirin and paracetamol to complete the holy trinity of high street painkillers. But what type do you buy – are you a brand lover or an own-label aficionado?

One of my biggest bugbears is the difference in cost between two medicines that are, in effect, exactly the same. I know not all are. If it’s an Extra or a Plus it’s likely to be longer-lasting or faster-acting, due to other things added to the active ingredient.

But if you’re just looking for a bog standard painkiller, I don’t think you need to spend much more than 50p for either paracetamol or ibuprofen.

I do know some people who swear by the big brand painkillerss. But, personally, I can’t see the difference (other than a prettier packet and a pound sign at the start of the price). Am I missing something?

Perhaps it’s some kind of placebo effect, where the comfort of a big brand over a supermarket brand makes it feel like the more expensive drugs are working better?

Why not buy own-label painkillers?

In these economic climes I would expect more people to turn to supermarket own-label painkillers, rather than just own-label food. As my Grandma used to say; ‘look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves’. If the effects are the same, why spend £1.95 for a branded ibuprofen when a high street generic is just 37 pence?

So, what’s your drug of choice? What medicine will you grab to alleviate the almost compulsory Christmas hangover? To kick back the headache that’s resulted from over-excited children, noisy new toys, over-loud TV and too much Christmas food (and drink)?

As for my hangover ‘cure’? It’s a mix of cheap supermarket paracetamol and ibuprofen, a bacon and egg sandwich, all washed down with plenty of water and some fresh orange juice. Merry Christmas!

What type of painkillers do you buy?

I buy cheaper own-label drugs (91%, 983 Votes)

I buy more expensive branded drugs (9%, 97 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,081

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I prefer to buy own brand products rather than pay extra to support the profits and advertising of the big brands. It amazes me that some people will pay much more for a well known brand.

The instructions provided are often better with the branded products, and the same applies with prescription medicines. I feel that all drugs should be provided with top quality instructions and that the text should be sufficiently large for elderly people with failing sight to read.

Oooh, I am excited that this gives me another chance to link to a placebo trial. This is fascinating – in quite a few studies, brand has been shown to have a fairly significant impact on the reduction in pain. Here’s an example of one:


I can’t find a Cochrane review for these trials but if anyone can find one I’d be really interested to see – I think it’s reasonably accepted now that branded placebos do better than non-branded placebos, implying that the name on the packaging itself goes some way towards curing a headache.

(This isn’t a Which? view, by the way – I don’t think we test drugs – I’m just a bit nerdy about this topic and have read around it a bit)

It’s good to see reference to a scientific paper instead of the usual links to dubious articles in newspapers and on websites.

I have often wondered if there is a legitimate use for placebos in ‘treatment’ of minor ailments. I would also like to know if branded placebos are more effective than unbranded placebos for people who know that unbranded drugs are just as effective.

Like Nikki I have an enquiring mind.

At one time GPs could write out a “coded” prescription for a placebo.
Probably considered unethical now

I use cocodamol for an occasional migrane.
I asked at a supermarket pharmacy, why their own make was now the same price as the branded packs used to be not 12 months earlier and the branded packs have almost doubled in price?
I got varied responses from, “You are just paying for the name with the branded ones” to, “They are identical, except our own brand is cheaper!”
Out of principle, I refuse to pay for supermarket own brand products.
I went locally and bought the branded pack for more than a pound less than the supermarket were charging. Every little didn’t help!

I am still using the packet of Ibuprofen I obtained from the doctor Seventeen years ago – Use about two tablets a year or less – Should last me until 2025 or longer.

dan says:
28 June 2013

well thats silly. they have a strict expiry date, usually within 2 or 3 years after purchasing. after this the active ingredient stops working, and can also become dangerous, especially after SEVENTEEN years.

I hope the Watchdog programme on BBC1 tonight has clarified, especially for the confused, that there is absolutely no difference between branded and own-brand painkillers. I have had arguments with friends who swore that Nurofen was more effective than ordinary Ibuprofen, even though I pointed out that on the boxes of both it states that the active ingredient is Ibuprofen! I put this confusion down to the power of advertising and the poor standards of science teaching. You don’t get different qualities of Ibuprofen (or aspirin, or paracetamol) – it is a licensed drug. It is wicked that advertisers get away with marketing the same drug as targetting specific pains in different parts of the body (migraine, tension headache, period pain etc)

dan says:
28 June 2013

Branded products cost more, because it’s these companies that put years of research into making them, after 1 year, they loose the copyright/trademark on the new formula, and so many years go since the competition changes, these big companies were forced to give the formula to other companies for competition, this not only drove prices up on branded products, but allow supermarkets and other brands (who don’t do any research) to only charge for the raw materials it costs to make, THIS is why i only buy branded products because it funds the research already made, and will be made in the future. now, i do realize that they charge over the top, even with the research, but with the few i do buy in a year, it’s well worth the price. Plus, i just don’t trust these cheaper own brands. I usually buy Anadin extra or Hedex Extra… and i buy Nurofen, everytime.


I agree that companies have to make major investment to research, develop and test new drugs. Many products never reach the pharmacy or supermarket shelves, and some are withdrawn as a result of reported problems, including unforeseen interaction with other commonly used drugs.

However, companies have patent protection, so they can charge what they want until the expiry of the patent, at which time other companies are at liberty to produce the same product at a cheaper price. It is becoming so difficult to produce new antibiotics that there is a good case for extending the duration of a patent, particularly since a large chunk of the duration of a patent can have expired by the time a drug reaches market.

I cannot remember which company developed ibuprofen but I think it has had more than enough opportunity to recover costs for development of this valuable drug and to support research etc. to produce new products.

Nurofen tablets are not on the list of drugs available for NHS prescription (though Brufen is for some reason that I am not sure of). Pharmacists will often provide whatever they can buy cheapest, unless the GP specifies a particular brand name. I once questioned my supermarket pharmacist about why I was being given a couple of drugs produced by the market leader and was told that it has such great buying power that they get a better deal from that company than from the producers of the generic drugs.

I have tried to explain both sides of the argument, and it’s cheap supermarket ibuprofen for me. 🙂

Incidentally, you don’t lose copyright after a year. For example, the Bass name and logo for beer are often regarded as the oldest UK logo, though it’s now owned by a foreign company.

Dan says:
28 June 2013

My bad, I did mean you now loose patent after one year not copyright, I just could not remember the word as I was typing, ill reply properly when I’m back home, only just skimmed things you said

As far as I know, the term of a patent is 20 years in both the UK and US. I have just read that UK pharmaceutical patents can be extended by up to five years.

I never did understand patents, even though my name is on four commercial patents from when I did university research funded by industry. That was nothing to do with the pharmaceutical industry, I hasten to add, and the patents expired years ago.

Dan says:
28 June 2013

As far a I understood, proctor and gamble were complaining about new laws which basically discount new patents and research, which is why we sadly have a lack of new innovative medical care, … It’s the fact that the public now has a right to cheaper medication, this is harming the big research companies, I really don’t know for fact, but the 20 year patent can be stopped for medication, as long as the cheaper types change it slightly. And this only gives the research company’s a year with no competition, for example, nurofen made liquid capsules, just one year later, other cheaper versions were available, this is why I think the claim by major pharmaceutical company’s must be true

I think we need some expert input here, Dan. It’s certainly an interesting subject. 🙂

Don’t forget that the big pharmaceutical companies are major players when it comes to developing products to get round the valuable patents of their rivals. The incessant legal action by manufacturers of mobile phones and other electronic devices is the best publicised example, but the same thing goes on in the world of pharmaceuticals.

Dan says:
28 June 2013

You’re right, but we need an impartial, objective expert… Which would be hard to find

I very much agree with that. I would trust a well known UK-based consumer organisation to present the opposing views in an authoritative way and explore reasonable solutions. Unfortunately, the outcome of legal cases will dictate the way forward rather than any common sense approach.

I had an interesting discussion with Walter who thought it was disgraceful that I should buy a packet of LIDL chocolate digestive biscuits rather (in similar but distinctively different packaging) than paying three times as much for the market leader’s equivalent. Walter pointed out that copycat products help suppress innovation by the market leader. I must say that I have much more sympathy for the pharmaceutical companies than biscuit makers. Search for ‘copycat’ if you are interested in looking at that Conversation.

Anthony says:
25 March 2015

What a load of verbal diarrhoea sine a lot of the research and development was made buy the own brand market (I.e boots developed ibuprofen) the branded market jumped on the band wagon for a quick buck and continue to reep the rewards because of people like you!

It’s not clear who you are addressing or quite which point you are making Anthony. Boots has been a major developer and manufacturer of drugs for generations, not always as ‘own-brand’ products, and ibuprofen was one of those [first marketed as Brufen and available to pharmacies independently of the Boots shops]. Sometimes pharmaceutical companies recoup their research and development investment by licensing other companies both here and abroad to manufacture and market their products well befoe the original patent has expired.

If we take the example of Ibuprofen, this is a pain killer / anti-inflammatory that was first developed in 1961, came to market in 1969 and the patent expired in 1984. I am sure that Boots made their cash back… and then some !!!

remember of course that the research chemists that work on chemical compounds for the pharma industry are often pharmacologists who have either been trained at publicly funded universities, or are grant funded to conduct the research at public universities as part of their studies.

Medicine is a public good and while I understand the profit motive is a good thing I won’t lose a great deal of sleep over a multinational only making $0.05 per pill for something that costs £0.019.

Prehaps if the larger brands were not overcharging PURELY because of their marketing costs, more people would be more supportive of them and buy into the research cost idea more

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rakesh gupta says:
2 November 2012

Need to know Brand revenues of Ibuprofen >

Nurofen Reckit Benkiser
Brufen – Aboott
Advil – Pfizer
Motrin – Wyeth

Selling the ‘brand’ is another way of recouping investment in drug development. Once the product has established a strong presence in the market, and the volumes and distribution logistics exceed the capacity of the original manufacturer, it can be a good idea to cash-in the value of the brand [without necessarily letting go of the intellectual property rights] and let another company with the required scale and reach develop the market. The proceeds of the brand disposal can then be reinvested in further reearch and development activity.

Without comparing the precise formulations, it is impossible to say to what extent the brands of ibuprofen listed by Rakesh above are identical and have exactly the same properties.

PS – Wyeth now belongs to Pfizer and I am not sure if ‘Motrin’ is still available as a separate product, Pfizer’s ‘Advil’ having become the leading US and worldwide brand.

John – At least with prescription drugs, the amount of drug in generic products is exactly the same in generic brands. Two variations that can occur between different brands of drugs are different choices of filler, the use of enteric coatings and modified release. Fillers are inactive components such as starch or lactose present in tablets and capsules.

A very small proportion of people are affected by certain fillers and if this is the case, a different brand would be a better choice, but for most people the filler makes no difference.

Enteric coating and modified release can result in considerable difference in efficacy of different formulations of a drug, irrespective of whether it is a well known brand or generic product. Enteric coatings are used to protect drugs from stomach acid until they reach the small intestine. Modified release makes the drug available more slowly, in order to help overcome the variation in concentration that would otherwise occur between doses.

Thanks Wavechange – I thought that was the case. The drug formulation has to be consistent but the effects of a drug for different people and, possibly, different situations, are suseceptible to modification as you describe and it is this form of product differentiation that the big brands trade on. They create the fear in users’ minds that the generic or ‘own-label’ version will be less comfortable to take or be more unappetising. Since childhood I have had a minor and occasional cold-sore problem that is averted by ointment. I can buy the brand leader [Zovirax] at something like £6 for a tiny tube or get Tesco’s own label version with a near-identical composition for around £2. So far as I can tell they both work the same but the branded product is more viscous and – if the ointment is applied sparingly – the tube lasts longer; whether that difference equates to the price difference I cannot be bothered to compute!

You are absolutely right John. The big brands do try to persuade the public that their products are better. With non-prescription pharmaceuticals the position is more complicated because different formulations often include multiple active ingredients. For example, Nurofen contains both ibuprofen and codeine. Since the amounts are declared, it is very easy to take both generic ibuprofen and codeine if you want both drugs.

I mentioned earlier that differences in fillers (inactive ingredients) usually affects few people, but your example of cold sore ointment would affect all users. Hopefully other makes of generic ointment do not have the same problem and maybe it would be worth alerting Tesco. Look for products containing 5% aciclovir (the old name is acyclovir) for cheaper alternatives to Zovirax.

I’m very happy with almost all generic brands but their instruction leaflets are often poor compared with the well known brands. A magnifying glass would be useful in some cases.

I am no authority on drugs research but am aware that proprietary pain killers can interact with existing medication. There are slow release pain killers and drugs especially formulated to gradually enter the system according to individual requirements which are normally only obtained on prescription. As we have become a nation of pill poppers it may be wise to check with your GP with any over the counter drugs, branded or unbranded, if you are already taking other prescribed medication, owing to the dangers of contraindication with sometimes dangerous and unpleasant side effects.

Personally I only ever take paracetamol for minor aches and pains and usually buy the capsules as they are much easier to swallow.

Beryl – Slow release painkillers are an example of the modified release drugs I mentioned. Slow release ibuprofen is now sold under various brand names at reasonable prices.

You are absolutely right about the dangers of self-medication and it is important to read the product information and to consult your GP if you have any concerns or need to use any non-prescribed drugs regularly.

Two interesting aspects about cold sores: first, they are highly contagious, and second, once the virus is contracted [usually in childhood] it is with us for life. To address the first point, sufferers must be responsible and limit the risk of infection [there are a number of simple precautions through personal actions that people can take]. However, there is no answer to the second point as no preventative is available. For comfort, and pimarily to limit the risk of contagion, it is advisable to apply an anti-viral cold sore cream at the onset of an outbreak. The manufacturers of these creams are very lucky to have a condition that can only grow in numbers of users; I hope they are ploughing some of their profits into discovering a permanent cure!

I think it is criminal that manufactures are able to get away with selling products that clearly state that they are for a specific pain, when in fact they are just generic. I note that Australia have taken action, when will the UK follow suit?

I take a 75mg dispersible aspirin daily. I normally buy from Asda for .89p per 100. Asda however annoyingly stopped selling them in a plastic tub & now only sell the overpacked item in a box containing blister packs, which are so difficult to get out without breaking the tablet into lots of bits. I decided to pop into Boots for the same item – own brand 75mg dispersible aspirin – cost? £1.59 – extortion! I really wasn’t feeling great that day otherwise, despite having queued for ages I’d have declined to buy them.

Ordinary dispersible aspirin are 300 mg tablets and if they have a score mark can be divided into two, and then divided again. Some other tablets have a special coating and should not be divided, but these would not have a score mark.

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