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1 October 2020

15 health products you don't need

From cough syrup to hair-loss shampoo, our experts reveal the health products that just aren't worth the money.
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Joanna Pearl

You’d be forgiven for assuming that any product on the shelves of your local pharmacy would be worthy of a place in your shopping basket, but our research has revealed a raft of products from well-known brands we think aren’t worth your money. 

We assessed fifteen popular health products - from cough medicines to eye wash and ear wax removal drops. In some cases, such as Benylin Tickly Cough and Chesty Cough medicines, it’s because there is a lack of evidence that they work. In others, such as painkillers Combogesic and Nuromol, it’s because they’re expensive formulations of commonly available basic painkillers.

We asked experts to scrutinise manufacturers' evidence that their products work - where it was given to us - as well as the wider literature. In some cases, the company (Benylin, Sudafed, Optrex) declined to show us the evidence for their product. They said, through a spokesperson or the manufacturers’ trade body, the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, that the regulator had licensed the medicine and therefore it’s safe and effective. 

Here are the products we don't believe you need to spend your money on.

Otrivine nasal sprays

Price: Around £3.50 for 10ml spray 

Otrivine sells three sprays for sufferers of different ailments: Otrivine Allergy Relief 0.1%, Otrivine Adult Measured Dose Sinusitis and Otrivine Adult Metered Dose 0.1%. 

Expert verdict: Look closely at the small print on the back, and you’ll realise all three are the same. The manufacturer says they’re marketed for different conditions to help you select ‘the product most suited to your needs’ (and the regulator says it’s in line with the product’s licensing) but we think this is misleading and you could waste money buying all three.

Nuromol and Combogesic painkillers

Price: Nuromol - £6.99 for 24; Combogesic - £3.99 for 16

Both these painkillers contain 500mg of paracetamol combined with a dose of ibuprofen (150mg in Combogesic and 200mg in Nuromol). 

Expert verdict: You pay a high price for the convenience of a two-in-one product like these. Combogesic tablets cost 25p each and Nuromol 29p. 

A far cheaper way to get the same or similar benefits would be to buy generic unbranded versions of the painkilling ingredients. Generic paracetamol costs as little as 1.2p per 500mg tablet, and ibuprofen 1.6p per 200mg tablet. That’s 2.8p for an equivalent dose.

Benylin Tickly Cough and Sore Throat Non-drowsy Syrup

Price: Around £4.50 for 150ml 

Expert verdict: Benylin Tickly Coughs & Sore Throat Non-drowsy cough syrup contains glycerol, but our experts found no published research on the efficacy of glycerol as an acute cough treatment. 

There is also no high-quality evidence that the medicine can soothe the tickly sensation that makes you want to cough, as it claims. Plus it’s 77% sugar – 1.5 teaspoons per 10ml dose. The maximum four daily doses would exceed your 30g recommended daily sugar limit.

Benylin Chesty Coughs Non-drowsy Syrup

Price: Around £4.50 for 150ml

Benylin Chesty Coughs Non-drowsy, claims it ‘works deep down to loosen phlegm, clear bronchial congestion, and make your cough more productive’. Our experts concluded that these claims aren’t justified by the evidence on the active ingredients. 

Expert verdict: Benylin said that both cough syrups are clinically proven and offer effective symptom relief, but our experts said there’s no good evidence cough medicines work. We put this to the regulator (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency). 

It said: ‘Prior to placing a medicinal product on the market, all manufacturers are required to submit evidence of acceptable quality, safe use and efficacy in the proposed indications.’ This was also reiterated by Benylin.

Sudafed Mucus Relief/ Congestion & Headache Relief Day & Night Capsules

Price: £4.50

The packaging says: ‘Helps relieve the symptoms of colds and flu, including stuffy noses, headaches, sore throats, fever, aches and pains.’ 

Expert verdict: The capsules contain paracetamol, phenylephrine (a decongestant) and (in the day capsules) caffeine. But there isn’t enough evidence that oral phenylephrine is more effective as a decongestant than a placebo. You could expect similar results by taking generic paracetamol with a mug of coffee. 

We’re concerned too that retailers sell the capsules – marketed under brands, including Benylin and own brands – at prices from 95p at Wilko to £4.50 from Sudafed (see above). 

Sudafed told us that the regulator assesses and approves ingredients, indications and packaging for medicines, including that they’re clinically proven and effective, before they can be sold.

Otex and Earex Advance ear drops

Price: Otex - Around £5 for 8ml; Earex Advance - Around £4 for 15ml 

Both products are designed to help remove hardened ear wax. 

Expert verdict: Hydrogen peroxide based ear drops like these do work, (our experts reviewed a trial sent by Otex; Earex didn’t provide specific evidence). But wider evidence shows it’s likely that cheaper alternatives including saline, water and olive or almond oil would work just as well. 

Using any drops appears to be better than no treatment, but it is uncertain if one type is any better than another. Otex believes that urea hydrogen peroxide breaks up hardened ear wax in a way neither or water nor saline do. Earex told us that NICE (the National Institute for Healthcare and Care Excellence) recommends this treatment for ear wax.

Centrum Advance 50+

Price: Around £4.50 for 30 tablets 

The website says: ‘Age may just be a number but it can impact your health needs.’ It claims to have adjusted levels of key nutrients to offer specific nutritional support to adults over 50. 

Expert verdict: People who eat a healthy balanced diet shouldn’t need multivitamins. Even if you’re advised to take vitamin D or K for bone health, this wouldn’t be as useful or cheap as a generic multivitamin supplement because of the low doses of key ingredients. 

Centrum costs about 15p per tablet, significantly more than a Superdrug own-brand multivitamin (6.6p per tablet) or one from Boots costing 3p per tablet. Centrum said the tablets supplement a healthy diet and that its health and nutrition claims comply with the European Food Safety Authority.

Optrex Multi-Action Eye Wash

Price: From £6 for 300ml (£20 per litre) 

This eye wash claims to wash, soothe and cleanse tired, irritated and uncomfortable eyes. 

Expert verdict: This eye wash would indeed wash the eye but the preservative used (in particular the benzalkonium chloride) can irritate some eyes. Sterile saline solution (from £5.50 a litre or £2 for 360ml) or preservative-free sterile water would be cheaper. The Optrex has an eye bath, but you can buy one separately and reuse it if kept sterile. 

Optrex told us via the Proprietary Association of Great Britain (a trade body) that UK over-the-counter medicines are rigorously assessed for safety and efficacy before sale. 

Seven Seas Perfect7 Woman

Price: From £7.50 to £10.50 for 30 


‘Our experts identified seven key needs for women and developed those into Perfect7 Woman,’ claims Seven Seas. 

Expert verdict: The key ingredients here aren’t needed by women who eat a balanced diet and aren’t deficient in zinc (skin and nails) or biotin (hair) A cheaper and just as useful alternative (if recommended above a healthy diet) would be a standard multivitamin and mineral supplement with a separate fish oil capsule if you need long-chain omega 3 fats (eg if you don't eat enough oily fish). 

Seven Seas told us that its authorised nutrition and health claims have been scientifically evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority.

Vitabiotics Jointace Fizz

Price: £8.49 for 20 tablets 

The name suggests it’s for those concerned about joints and includes unspecific claims such as ‘cartilage and bone health are important for long-term wellbeing’. Key ingredients include glucosamine and chondroitin. 

Viabiotics says its product ‘provides an effective health maintenance level’ of glucosamine sulphate and complies with applicable regulations. 

Expert verdict: Glucosamine is an important part of bone cartilage, but there’s a lack of substantiated evidence to support claims that supplements with it can offer the same support. Even if chondroitin works (trials are poor quality), it would need a much higher dose than these tablets have. 

Also the product doesn’t list how much sodium it contains, but we found that taking two a day is equivalent to a sixth of your 6g recommended salt intake.

Corsodyl Ultra Clean Daily Fluoride Toothpaste

Price: Around £4 for 75ml (£5.33 per 100ml) 

The packaging claims this is ‘four times more effective at removing the main cause of bleeding gums’ than a regular toothpaste. 

Expert verdict: This toothpaste has a high level of sodium bicarbonate (or baking soda) in it (67%), and there is evidence that toothpastes containing this are better than regular fluoride toothpastes at cleaning tooth surfaces, controlling plaque and reducing gum inflammation, as Corsodyl claims. 

But until well-run studies pit Corsodyl against other toothpastes with slightly lower baking-soda concentrations, there is no evidence that this toothpaste is better than other baking-soda-containing toothpastes such as Arm & Hammer, which costs £3.33 per 100ml.

Macleans White & Shine and Colgate Max White One toothpastes

Price: Macleans White & Shine around £2 per pack; Colgate Max White One around £3.50 per pack

Macleans claims ‘… The formula is proven to give you  visibly shinier and smoother teeth from just one week.’ Colgate claims ‘… It safely removes stains and prevents tartar build-up to help you get one shade whiter teeth in one week.’

Expert verdict: Neither manufacturer provided robust evidence to prove its whitening claims. Both toothpastes contain the abrasives silica and mica, which should remove surface stains from drinks like coffee, tea or red wine. 

However, they are not chemical whiteners, such as hydrogen peroxide, which bleaches teeth, and any whitening effect is therefore likely to be relatively superficial. Some toothpastes also use detergents or surfactants, such as pentasodium triphosphate, to help remove surface dirt. 

The Colgate toothpaste contains optical brighteners. This synthetic blue pigment leaves a sheen on teeth to give the illusion of whiteness, but needs regular use and isn’t as effective as a dentist’s clean. Teeth are not naturally white. They may appear yellow as the bulk of their colour comes from naturally yellow-hued dentine.

Alpecin Caffeine shampoo C1 Reduces Hair Loss

Price: around £5.50 for 250ml

Alpecin claims to reduce hair loss by stimulating the roots. Foltène claims to strengthen and ‘energise’ thinning hair. Head & Shoulders has zinc pyrithione (ZPT) to inhibit the growth of Malassezia, which is involved in causing dandruff.

Expert verdict: Evidence from Alpecin showed an effect from caffeine on hair growth in a test tube, but that’s not enough to show this shampoo works better than a placebo on humans. Our chemist said the shampoo’s menthol will tingle, which may feel like it’s working. Alpecin didn’t respond to  our request for comments.

Brainsmart Memory 

Price: £24.89 for 60 capsules

These tablets include Ginkgo Biloba, B vitamins and N-Acetylcysteine. Brainsmart claims 'a significant step forward to improved memory and ultimately in the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s.'

Expert verdict: We found that some of BrainSmart’s health claims didn't appear to be European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) - substantiated and could be misleading. Despite amending its website and labelling after our contact, we pursued this with the Advertising Standards Authority. Following our complaint and further investigation by the ASA, BrainSmart made changes to its adverts.

We paid in sterling and think BrainSmart should abide by UK advertising rules, despite it saying its US-based company doesn’t fall under UK jurisdiction, or market in the UK. 

BrainSmart says: ‘We think EFSA is behind the curve. Our product doesn’t claim to prevent, cure or treat disease, and scientific data clearly supports its efficacy. We have many satisfied customers and comply with all applicable rules and regulations.’

Efamol Brain Active Memory

Price: £10.99 for 30 capsules

These capsules include fish oils DHA, EHA, Ginkgo Biloba, vitamins B6, B12 & E.

The company claims vitamin B12 and folic acid (B6... protect against vascular and brain damage including stroke, which can cause dementia.

Expert verdict: Some of the health claims don’t seem to have been substantiated by the EFSA and are potentially misleading. The brain needs B6 and B12, but diet alone should give these. See left for our verdict on all these ingredients.

Efamol told us it didn’t intend to mislead consumers, takes the matters we’ve raised seriously and apologised unreservedly. It temporarily took down its website, reviewed it, and made changes to its marketing.

Top tips when buying health products

Follow these tips when scrutinising over-the-counter remedies: 

  • Ask the pharmacist to explain the risks and benefits of products, or to suggest alternatives. 
  • Be wary of unspecific, meaningless claims such as ‘stay younger for longer’ (Seven Seas Perfect7 Woman). 
  • Look for cheaper versions of the same medicine. Each has a marketing authorisation (‘product licence’ or ‘PL’) number. If this is the same on two products, they are the same medicine. 
  • Check on the packaging what the key active ingredients are, and if other products do the same for a cheaper price. This will also mean you don’t buy multiple products that are the same. 
  • Double-check the full ingredients list, especially if you’re on a restricted diet, so you’re aware of extras such as salt and sugar in medicines. If it’s not stated (as with the salt we uncovered in Jointace Fizz) ask the customer services of the company or your pharmacist.

Which? says

We believe that all companies should be transparent and show consumers and consumer organisations their evidence so we can see if all medicines, including older ones like cough medicines, are value for money.

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