Inactive Ingredients in Common Pain Medications

Drug Terminology You Should Know

Pills of different shapes, colors and sizes fill the image.
Pain killer types. ShutterWorx/E+/Getty Images

Inactive Ingredient Definition:

An inactive ingredient in a drug or medication is any component that is not the active ingredient. These are the ingredients that do not exert the intended therapeutic effect, and do not cause the side effects, known or unknown, associated with the particular drug. Another name for inactive ingredients in a medication is excipient.  Excipient refers to a pharmacologically inactive ingredient, according to the website Drugs.com.

Inactive ingredients are used in the manufacturing process and/or are present in the final medication product. They fulfill a variety of purposes, from delivering the active ingredient to making the pill look and taste good, along with other things.  

The FDA requires that all inactive ingredients in a medication be listed on the label.  This is the list to check if you think you might be allergic to the medication.  The problem is, inactive ingredients can vary between pain medications, even the ones that share the same active ingredient (except perhaps, when they are manufactured by the same company as Motrin and Advil are.)

Let's take an example:

According to the FDA, Advil, which is one of the brand names for ibuprofen (and made by the Pfizer drug company) contains the following inactive ingredients: Carnauba wax, colloidal silicon dioxide, croscarmellose sodium, hypromellose, lactose, magnesium stearate, microcrystalline cellulose, propylene glycol, titanium dioxide.

 

Wal-Mart sells a comparable ibuprofen product called Equate.  The inactive ingredients for this pain reliever are similar but not the same.  They are colloidal silicon dioxide, corn starch, croscarmellose sodium, hypromellose, iron oxide red, iron oxide yellow, microcrystalline cellulose, polyethylene glycol, polysorbate 80, stearic acid, titanium dioxide.

 

If you're not prone to reading lists of ingredients, here's are the differences in the inactive ingredients between two products in a nutshell.

  • Advil has carnauba wax, lactose, magnesium stearate, but Equate does not.
  • Equate has corn starch, iron oxide red, iron oxide yellow, polysorbate 80, stearic acid.
  • They both have colloidal silicon dioxide, croscarmellose sodium, hypromellose, microcrystalline cellulose, polyethylene glycol, and titanium dioxide.

Some of the things the above-listed excipients (inactive ingredients) do include coating the medication (carnauba wax,) helping the drug to disintegrate (called a disintegrant) once you've swallowed (corn starch, colloidal silicon dioxide,) anti-caking (also colloidal silicon dioxide) and more.   

The website, Drugs.com says that some inactive ingredients are not always inactive, citing alcohol as an example.  They say alcohol changes according to the specific drug formulation in which it is found.

If you are at all unsure about the medication you are taking (or are considering taking,) read the drug label and speak with your pharmacist.

Related: What are Drug Side Effects?

Sources:

Corn Starch. Drugs.com. Accessed Feb 2016. https://www.drugs.com/inactive/corn-starch-30.html

Ibuprofen. Medline Plus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Last Updated Sept 2015. Accessed Feb 2016. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a682159.html

Inactive Ingredients. Drugs.com. Accessed Feb 2016. https://www.drugs.com/inactive/

Silicon Dioxide Colloidal. Drugs.com. Accessed Feb 2016. https://www.drugs.com/inactive/silicon-dioxide-colloidal-200.html

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