Which? uses cookies to improve our sites and by continuing you agree to our cookies policy.

Best painkillers - aspirin, ibuprofen or paracetamol?

By Joanna Pearl

Put us to the test

Our Test Labs compare features and prices on a range of products. Try Which? to unlock our reviews. You'll instantly be able to compare our test scores, so you can make sure you don't get stuck with a Don't Buy.

Best painkillers - aspirin, ibuprofen or paracetamol?

So which painkillers - including Aspirin, Ibuprofen and Paracetamol - work best? We've teamed up with a panel of experts to find out.

Woman with headache

 

There are 88 different ways you can buy ibuprofen in your local pharmacy – a potent example of just how huge the over-the-counter painkiller market has become. Is it worth buying your painkiller in cold and flu remedies such as Beechams and Lemsip? And should you pay extra for fast-acting painkillers, or buy ones targeted at certain parts of your body? 

The table below reveals which types of painkillers - and painkiller combinations - work the best, according to a high-quality academic review.

Only logged-in Which? members can view our findings in the tables below. If you're not yet a member, you can get instant access by taking a £1 trial to Which?.

Which painkillers work best?
Product

Dose (MG)

Success rate

Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 70%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 67%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 57%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 54%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 52%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 45%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 43%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 37%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 34%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 31%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 28%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 26%
Subscriber only content Subscriber only content 11%

Source: Source: Moore RA, Wiffen PJ, Derry S, Maguire T, Roy YM, Tyrrell L. Non-prescription (OTC) oral analgesics for acute pain - an overview of Cochrane reviews. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2015, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD010794. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD010794.pub2. Permission to reprint this table granted by John Wiley and Sons.

Which painkiller brands are worth buying?

The table above reveals that certain combinations of painkiller types work the best, but does the brand you choose also make a difference? To find out, we reviewed the evidence behind the claims made by popular painkillers, along with pharmacist and academic experts Dr Anthony Cox, Dr Margaret McCartney and Professor Martin Underwood. Check out our verdict in the table below. 

We looked at cold and flu remedies, back and joint pain products and 'premium' painkillers that will cost you extra, such as fast-acting ones and those with caffeine.

Our assessment reveals that in many cases, the claims on packaging could be leading shoppers to spend more on products that are no better at relieving pain than cheaper, basic painkillers. For example, one well-known cold and flu remedy costs 15 times more than products with the same active ingredients packaged differently on the next shelf.

Discover which products are and aren't worth buying in the table below.

The truth about painkillers
Painkiller issue

What we did...

Expert verdict

Which back and joint pain remedies work?

 

Voltarol Pain-eze Emulgel

Deep Heat Heat Rub

Cura-Heat Back & Shoulder Pain Heat Packs

Philips BlueTouch Pain Relief Patch

We asked companies to provide research to back up their claims on these four products promising joint and back-pain relief, and our three experts reviewed their evidence.

Get our expert view - log in or take a £1 trial to Which?

Should I pay more for fast-acting painkillers?

Superdrug migraine relief

Boots Rapid period pain relief

Wilko express pain relief

Our experts - pharmacist, GP and academic experts Dr Anthony Cox, Dr Margaret McCartney and Professor Martin Underwood - reviewed the evidence behind the claims made for fast-acting painkillers. Get our expert view - log in or take a £1 trial to Which?

What should I know about painkillers that target parts of the body?

Nurofen Tension headache

Nurofen migraine pain

Our experts reviewed the evidence behind
painkillers that claim to target parts of the body.
Get our expert view - log in or take a £1 trial to Which?

Do painkillers with caffeine work better?

Anadin Extra

Hedex Extra

Our experts reviewed the evidence behind the claims made by popular painkillers containing caffeine. Get our expert view - log in or take a £1 trial to Which?

What should I know about cold and flu remedies with painkillers?

Beechams cold and flu lemon

Lemsip cold and flu lemon

Our experts reviewed the evidence behind the claims made by popular cold and flu remedies containing painkillers. Get our expert view - log in or take a £1 trial to Which?

Generic versus branded painkillers

Of course, most leading pharmacies and supermarkets also sell generic versions of painkillers at a fraction of the cost.

You can buy generic fast-acting ibuprofen for as little as a third of the cost of Nurofen per tablet. They’re not identical to bestselling branded Nurofen tablets – even though the active ingredients are the same (342mg ibuprofen lysine) – but they’re often identical to each other once you look past the brand, packaging claims and prices.

We found 14 different packets of ibuprofen lysine sold by supermarkets and pharmacies, containing caplets all identical to each other, ranging from 8p a caplet at Wilko to 20p per tablet at Boots and Superdrug. 

They are variously sold as ‘migraine relief’, ‘period pain relief’, ‘express pain relief’ and ‘rapid pain relief, but are actually made at the same production site (labs) to exactly the same formulation.

If you examine the fine print, you’ll find all these products carry the same marketing authorisation (product licence/PL) number. This means they are the same, but the licence allows them to be sold under different names.

Related items

SHARE THIS PAGE