What Is an Inactive Ingredient?

Inactive Ingredients and Active Ingredients Make Up Your Medication


Inactive ingredients, or excipients,  are substances in medication that are not intended to treat symptoms or a health condition. These substances may include colors, flavors, preservatives, and materials that bind the pill together.

It is important that you be aware of inactive ingredients because they can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Examples of Inactive Ingredients

Lipitor, a commonly prescribed medication for the treatment of high cholesterol and prevention of heart disease, contains the following ingredients:

Active Ingredient: atorvastatin

Inactive Ingredients:

  • calcium carbonate
  • candelilla wax
  • croscarmellose sodium
  • hydroxypropyl cellulose
  • lactose monohydrate
  • magnesium stearate
  • microcrystalline cellulose
  • Opadry White YS-1-7040 (hypromellose, polyethylene glycol, talc, titanium dioxide)
  • polysorbate 80
  • simethicone emulsion

Inactive Ingredient Database

The FDA Center fro Drug Evaluation and Research hosts an inactive ingredient database on its site. This database is updated every three months.

According to a PowerPoint presentation given by Robert Iser, a chemist at the FDA:

  • The database lists only inactive ingredients in their final dosage forms .
  • Ingredients that were part of a previously approved medication may contain streamlined entries.
  • Ingredient names are standardized.
  • Ingredients are linked to the FDA's Substance Registration Database.
  • As of 2013, there were plans for the database to include generic, common, brand, cosmetic, compendia, trade names and synonyms.
  • Maximal Daily Intake (MDI) and potency per unit is listed for inactive ingredients.
  • The database should help both manufacturers of brand-name drugs and those of generic drugs.

Inactive Ingredients vs. Placebo

Please don't get the term inactive ingredient mixed up with placebo.

A placebo is a treatment initiated by a physician for the benefit of the patient.

A placebo has no physiological mechanism and instead helps by means of psychological effects.  Patients who use placebos may perceive benefit based on beliefs, hopes and expectations. This benefit has been termed the placebo effect, and often helps relieve pain and discomfort. Common examples of placebos include sugar pills, vitamin pills, over-the-counter analgesics or saline injections.

In clinical practice, the ethics of placebo use has long been debated. Nevertheless, it's estimated that half of all American physicians regularly use placebo treatments. Most ethicists agree that the use of a placebo by a physician is unethical. More specifically, even though a physician may have good intentions when prescribing a placebo, at the root of such prescription is deception of the patient. However, placebos are still used in clinical trials where research participants are aware that they may receive placebo treatment.

Both placebos and inactive ingredients contain ingredients that don't do anything in your body. However, inactive ingredients accompany and facilitate the administration of active ingredients and thus are part of an active medication therapy.

Selected Sources

Jonsen AR, Siegler M, Winslade WJ. Preferences of Patients. In: Jonsen AR, Siegler M, Winslade WJ. eds. Clinical Ethics: A Practical Approach to Ethical Decisions in Clinical Medicine, 8e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015.  Accessed January 31, 2016.


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