/ Health

Painkillers – don’t fall for pricey pseudo-science

Would you knowingly pay £3.99 for a branded painkiller when you could basically get the same active painkilling ingredients for 56p? Or pay £7 for a spray that’s just water (sorry, thermal spa water)?

It would be nice to think we’re one step ahead of the pharmaceutical industry in deciding which products are worth our money, and our poll at the end of last year showed that 88% of you buy cheaper own-label drugs as opposed to expensive branded drugs.

But – as someone who’s bought numerous products (anti-viral tissues and anti-ageing moisturiser spring to mind) without really thinking just how they might work – it’s not always obvious what we’re being sold and what the evidence base is.

£3.99 for paracetamol and ibuprofen

The Advertising Standards Authority recently challenged a pharmaceutical company for breaching advertising codes. Its TV ad for painkiller Nuromol showed scientists in white coats and a voiceover talking about ‘taking years to create a new, unique painkiller combination’, suggesting a wonderful new pain relief ‘when regular painkillers don’t provide the relief you’re looking for’.

However, the ad was successfully challenged by ex-medicinal chemist Dr Frank King who believed the company’s evidence didn’t stack up.

You can buy unbranded paracetamol (40p for 16 tablets) and ibuprofen (16p for 16 tablets) at a fraction of the price of Nuromol (£3.99 for 12 tablets), which – quite simply – is a combination of the two. Does it really take years to combine two existing active ingredients? Plus, scientific research found that Nuromol doesn’t work significantly better than the recommended dose of ibuprofen alone.

Expensive ‘thermal spa’ facial sprays

The Sun also recently reported that so-called ‘hydration sprays’ to cool your skin in the heat – sold by big brands like Evian and Vichy – are just water, but apparently cost up to 60 times more than petrol. For example, Evian’s Brumisateur facial spray costs £3.57for 50ml, or £71.41 a litre. And Vichy’s Thermal Spa Water Spray costs £7 for a 150ml bottle.

And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a product packaged up with a long list of dubious claims and a price tag to match. It’s easy to say ‘look at the label’ and indeed we do need to become savvy consumers who – as science myth-busting charity Sense About Science remind us – ‘ask for evidence’.

But should we have to put up with companies trying to trip us up with pseudo-science? We’re looking for examples of over-the-counter products where the evidence just doesn’t stack up – so what have you spotted?


I buy the 16p packets of ibuprofen from supermarkets. I’ve never heard of Nuromol, probably because I don’t watch commercial TV, but it does seem worth avoiding.

My experience is that elderly people often believe the expensive products are more effective than the cheaper alternative. It seems criminal that people struggling on a state pension have been victim of dishonest advertising and the companies should be ashamed of themselves.

I’m not sure what has happened to the 16p packets of Ibuprofen. The cheapest of the three versions (capsules, caplets and tablets) in Tesco is now 28 p. Boots seems to charge silly prices for generic products, but that is nothing new.

john mccolgan says:
23 July 2012

It’s the power of the Brand name. My mum (deceased) used to get Ventolin inhalers for her asthma on prescription. One day her script was delivered with the generic inhaler of Salbutamol Sulphate. Despite explaining to her that the contents of the inhaler were chemically identical she refused to use the substitute product, saying that they don’t help her breathing the same as Ventolin does. Sigh.

I once asked why my local Tesco pharmacy always prescribed Ventolin when the GP had given the generic name on the prescription. Apparently Tesco buy in such large quantities that they can purchase Ventolin more cheaply than the same drug manufactured by other companies.

GPs and hospital doctors generally give the generic name but can specify a particular product. I can’t remember why, but my GP always specifies the brand Clenil rather than the generic name, beclometasone dipropionate. It contains glycerol and is horribly sweet compared with Becotide and other brands, but it is just as effective.

The only significant difference I have noticed between brands of drugs is the quality of instructions. Even if the information is good, sometimes the size of text is far too small. It’s not much use having brilliant instructions if they are too small to read. Perhaps someone would like to take this up as a safety issue. The well known brands are usually better, but not always.

Paul Hodges says:
23 July 2012

I only ever buy own brand paracetamol or ibuprofen. own brand cost is around 47p a box which is amazing when you consider how much branded equivalent costs.

Lisa says:
27 July 2012

Many years ago, about 50 I think, I read the contents of a then cold relief tablet, and realised that the two important ingredients on the label were aspirin and cinnamon, both of which I possessed and were much cheaper. Since then I have never bought a so called cold remedy, but on experimenting have found that a concentration of vitamin C. garlic and cinnamon are amazing effective at warding off colds or if I am unfortunate enough to get one, shortening them to about four days. I am not suggesting this would work for everyone, but do wonder how many people now take Lemsip, with out realising they already have the active ingredients at hand.

ivorinmaldon says:
28 July 2012

Garlic?? I’d rather put up with the cold!

We buy supermarket ibuprofen, paracetamol and loratadine (for hayfever/allergy). We are used to these drugs.

HOWEVER we have been finding it quite confusing with all the generic as well as different brand names on parents’ drugs (and they do too). At the hospital we were asked about the drugs taken and had to ask the doctor for alternative names to know that we were talking about the same ones. (A list had been provided but doctors I am now learning don’t read notes.) Perhaps we should have the generic names larger on the packets than the brand names?

That is a good suggestion, but it might take a bit of legislation to persuade manufacturers that the generic name (what is known as the BAN or British Approved Name) should take priority over their own product name. Since the BAN is not a proper chemical name and often does not provide much useful information, perhaps there is a case for using simple, memorable names like those proprietary names most of us are more familiar with.

There is also a good case for using the dosage as part of the name to avoid confusion where drugs are available in different strengths. For example, it would be useful to refer to aspirin 75 and aspirin 300 to refer to those in common use.

Sometimes generic drugs have cheaper ‘fillers’ or different capsule ingredients from the branded items which may affect absorption of the active ingredients – also generics can be licensed with certain lower percentages of the active ingredients so although they are ostensibly ‘the same’ it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be as effective. It’s horses for courses and keep an open mind. If a generic works that’s great, but if it doesn’t it can be very distressing.

Hi Cookie – There is a recent Conversation about the topic discussed in the magazine article.

The variety of different presentations of the same drug must be very confusing to the elderly. I have ibuprofen pills as red pills, white pills and white caplets. Fillers do vary but the the main difference in absorption rate is when the formulation is deliberately intended to release the drug slowly. That’s often done with higher dose prescription-only drugs. There are also ones with enteric coatings that provide protection against gastric acid, so that more of the drug reaches the intestines.

I’m no expert but the dosage of the active ingredient of a generic drug is usually the same as the well known brand, though higher dosages are commonly available on prescription.

GPs and hospital doctors usually specify the name of a drug (e.g. ibuprofen) rather than a brand in prescriptions and the pharmacist can supply what they stock, often what they can buy cheapest – which is often a generic product but sometimes the well known brand.

I am far from happy that some well known companies are making fraudulent claims that their medicines can target specific problems.

WHICH magazine show painkiler tablets in the Jan 2016 edition. WHICH conversation shows capsules instead of the tablets which are very difficult for some people to swallow.

I can prefer and can swallow capsules any time without any help from drink or food My father is the opposite so its horses for courses and mostly both are available