Switching to generic versions of popular over-the-counter medicines is often an easy way to save money, but being savvy to common retail tricks can also help you get the best value.
Use our pricing know-how to navigate the medicine aisles and you’ll be able to make savings on the everyday medication on your shopping list.
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Pricing tactics to watch out for when buying medicine
1. Similar-looking products that aren’t actually comparable
With hundreds of products on the shelves, companies are relying on you reaching for the one that looks cheapest without looking too closely at what you’re buying.
For example, generic and own-brand alternatives to Gaviscon Original Aniseed Relief (with the same active ingredients) come in bottles ranging from 150ml to 500ml, making prices hard to compare.
- Choose the active ingredient you need – then check the size and the concentration of the choices on offer so you can compare unit prices.
- Check the unit price (per 100ml or tablet) – usually given on price labels or websites, to make sure you’re really bagging a bargain.
Make sure that the concentration of the active ingredient is the same, too.
For example, you can get a bargain generic version of Corsodyl medicated mouthwash that has 0.2% of the active ingredient chlorhexidine at Home Bargains. But versions at some other discount stores are for cosmetic use only and have much lower concentrations of chlorhexidine.
2. Same medicine, different price
Once the patent on a medication has expired, manufacturers of generic equivalents can get them rolling off the same production line for a fraction of the price.
So, while Nytol Herbal tablets cost £3.99 for a pack of 30 in Boots, Boots’ own Sleepeaze Herbal tablets are identical and cost only £3.59.
A trip to Wilko will get you 30 Sleep Aid tablets – again, exactly the same – for just £1.20, a saving of £2.79 on the big-brand version.
- You can tell the medicines are exactly the same by looking at the product licence (PL) number on the pack. Medicines with the same PL number (whether branded or generic) are identical.
3. The myth of ‘targeted’ pain relief
Companies love to tell you that their products are targeting particular areas of the body. They say it’s helpful, as you can quickly identify the right medication for your needs.
But you’ll feel the side effect in your wallet when you realise that your Anadin Joint Pain tablets are just standard 200mg ibuprofen tablets in a fancy box.
As pharmacist Michael Line says, ‘Medicines taken internally do not magically go to specific parts of the body – they go everywhere.’
- Again, check the active ingredient. Express, migraine relief and period pain ibuprofen products are usually all the same thing: ibuprofen lysine.
4. Don’t overpay for ‘pharmacy-only’ products
You may think that the medicine you buy over the counter from the pharmacist (called ‘pharmacy-only’) is different or better than you can pick up on the open shelves. But that isn’t always the case.
People with Irritable Bowel Syndrome will find that Buscopan Cramps has the same active ingredient as Buscopan IBS Relief (licensed for people diagnosed with IBS), but when we checked prices at Boots it cost £4.89 for the former (20 pack from the pharmacy counter), and £3.49 if you opt for the latter (same size) straight from the shelves.
And if you need 1% hydrocortisone steroid cream (the same regardless of whether it’s marketed as bite and sting cream or H45), you can buy 10g tubes off the shelf for as little as £15 per 100g, compared to the 15g tube pharmacy-only versions, which cost as much as £29.93 per 100g at Boots.
You can get pharmacist advice on getting and using the right product if you need it.
5. Ditch expensive extras
Caffeine can boost the pain-relieving effects of cold and flu remedies or painkillers, but you don’t have to buy products with it added in as it can bump up the price considerably.
For example, two Panadol Extra Advance tablets cost 40p (at Boots) and include 130mg of caffeine, but you could get two generic paracetamol tablets (the same dose of paracetamol) for under 3p and get the caffeine from your usual coffee.
Save money too by avoiding pricey formulations if you can stick to the basics. Basic tablets or caplets are generally cheaper than capsules, soluble or melt-in-the-mouth versions.
Sixteen soluble Solpadeine headache tablets cost £2.95 in Wilko, while generic paracetamol and caffeine (Paracetamol Plus) caplets are only 70p (both have the same dose).
6. Watch out for confusing copycats
Shopping psychology shows that we tend to reach for familiar colours and designs that mimic the brand we know, and brands use this to guide us to similar products.
But this can cost you. Look past the familiar colours and focus on active ingredients to help choose the best product for you at the best price.
It can also be confusing. We noticed Becodefence nasal spray sitting next to Beconase in Boots. They have similar packaging but are very different products.
Beconase contains the active ingredient beclomethasone, which is an inhaled steroid, while Becodefence is a drug-free product that coats your nasal passages with a barrier layer.
7. Convenience will cost you
It may be tempting to reach for one pill when you’re feeling lousy or travelling, but be aware you’ll usually be paying a hefty premium.
Nuromol tablets combine standard paracetamol and ibuprofen for a double hit of pain relief, but they cost £7.49 in Boots for a pack of 24 – 62p per dose.
If you took Superdrug’s own-brand paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets together, it would cost just 8p per two-tablet dose.
Sometimes, you’ll be happy to pay more to swallow a few less pills, but it’s worth knowing that, if you want to cut the cost of your medication, opting for the separate versions tends to be cheaper.
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*pricing data correct as of 4 December 2019