Pharmaceutical products are chemicals that we take to treat or improve medical conditions. Stable and less stable forms exist, requiring different packaging types. Additionally, all types of pharmaceuticals need protection from microbial spoilage.

In our previous article, A Simple Guide to Making FDA-Compliant Drug Labels, we mentioned that visual appeal could become less important than consumer protection when labeling drugs. The same applies to packaging. The FDA strictly regulates both to keep end-users safe.

Here, we discuss the importance of pharmaceutical packaging, explore its different forms and explain where sustainability in the market fits in.

What Are the Important Roles of Pharmaceutical Packaging?

The rules in drug packaging design are simple: make a neat closure, keep the container clean and label the product legibly. They leave artistry out of the consumers’ purchasing decisions, as it can obscure critical product information like scientific evidence and side effects.

Consequently, the World Health Organization considers the following as the chief roles of pharmaceutical packaging:



Packaging Contents

High-quality packaging offers effective drug containment solutions. It’s strong enough to hold its contents and does not transform the product chemically. It also remains physically intact throughout the drug’s viability period.


Shields the Pharmaceutical Product

The packaging material should be able to protect the drug product from various external factors, including biological decay, chemical changes, mechanical deformity, moisture, oxygen and UV light.


Product Presentation and Information

Pharmaceutical packing, labeling and dispensing should not reduce product integrity. The packaging prevents mix-ups so healthcare providers can give patients the right meds. The pharmaceutical label and package inserts have all the drug information that can help health workers and patients understand its actions.

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Promotes Treatment Compliance

Good pharmaceutical packaging designs encourage patients to adhere to their treatment. They make the contents easy to access, prepare and measure right before intake.


Consumer Protection

Good pharmaceutical packaging can protect vulnerable consumers from accidental drug ingestion and overdose.


Combats Counterfeiting

Smuggling and cargo theft can bring drug products into illegal retail channels and may lead to counterfeiting. Tamper-proof seals protect consumers by letting them know if a drug product has been opened before they buy it.

Even if pharmaceutical packaging is simpler than other product containers, colors still play a role in their design, particularly because they facilitate proper distribution. Pharmaceutical companies may assign different colors to different medications or different doses of the same drug.

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What Are the Different Types of Pharmaceutical Packaging?

There are several ways to classify pharmaceutical packaging. The most important ones that small business owners in the market must know are explained below.

According to Their Level of Interaction with the Pharmaceutical Product

The term “packaging levels” refers to the packaging layers and the extent of their interaction with the product.

The primary packaging is in direct contact with the product.

The secondary packaging wraps around the primary packaging and does not directly interact with the product. For pharmaceutical drugs with secondary packaging, the information leaflet is normally inserted in it together with the product and its primary packaging. Sometimes, a measuring equipment, like a plastic teaspoon or dropper, is included, too.

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The tertiary packaging packs several units with secondary packaging. It does not interact with the product, either. However, it protects huge volumes of pharmaceuticals during shipment.

Higher levels of packaging may also be applied to protect product integrity. However, packaging redundancy by pharma companies has been strongly opposed by environmental activists for years.

According to the Type of Material Packaging

The following packaging materials are most commonly used in the pharmaceutical packaging market because of their reliability:

  • Glass — mostly used as a primary container for pharmaceuticals. Glass bottles are recyclable and chemically stable. However, they break easily and are, therefore, less suitable for pressurized pharmaceutical substances. Dark-colored glass is used for UV protection.
  • Plastic — this is a chemically stable, versatile material that can comprise primary, secondary, tertiary or higher packaging levels. Adhesives are also typically derived from plastic polymers. The substances most frequently used are polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate and polyvinyl chloride.  

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Opaque types provide UV protection, whereas clear variants allow pharmacists and consumers to visually confirm a pharmaceutical product’s identity. Plastic containers are light, collapsible, and unbreakable, making them suitable for many packaging formulations. However, only some types can be safely recycled. 

  • Metal — it can make up a pharmaceutical product’s primary or secondary packaging. Metals are unbreakable but not stable to some liquids and solids, so they are mostly used for pressurized gases and chemically inert ointments and creams. Metallized plastics and closures are also common. The most widely used metals in pharmaceutical packaging are aluminum and stainless steel.
  • Paper and cardstock — both materials are porous and cannot endure solvents. These attributes limit their utility to making drug labels, secondary packaging materials and information leaflets.
  • Rubber — this elastic polymer may be derived from both natural and artificial sources. Rubber may be used for making pharma package closures, plungers (for syringes and pressurized containers) and adhesives.
  • Foam — this material is never used as primary drug packaging. However, its insulating and elastic properties make it suitable for padding frozen and room-temperature pharmaceutical items during transport. 

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According to Pharmaceutical Packaging Design

Pharmaceutical packaging design comes in many different forms, suiting a wide range of pharmaceuticals subjected to various conditions. The most frequently used ones are the following:

(a) Primary Packaging Designs

  • Ampoules — primary packaging made of glass or plastic, used for liquid formulations. They are sealed by fusion and broken open before use. They are, therefore, single-use containers.
  • Bags — these packaging are single-use collapsible plastic containers used for delivering fairly large volumes of intravenous preparations.
  • Blister packs — these packaging are made of plastic that may or may not have metallized backing. They are the pill packs that we typically see in pharmacies.
  • Bottles — can be made of glass or plastic and may have aluminum foil or cardboard seals. Bottles sometimes come with droppers, which help patients measure liquid oral medicines.
  • Cans — metal cans are used as the primary packaging for chemically stable drugs in any physical form.
  • Cartridges — these single-use plastic or metallic cylindrical packaging may contain liquid or solid medications. They are used as prefilled syringes or for loading metered-dose inhalers and similar medicine dispensers.
  • Disposable enemas — they are typically made of plastic and rubber. They are used to inject fluids in the lower colon.
  • Gas cylinders — these metals are used for pressurized gases like medical oxygen.
  • Medicated strips — these flexible bandage-like packaging materials are used for limited-time delivery of topical drugs. They are composed of plastics or latex. 
  • Nasal sprays — typically plastic or glass containers with nozzles that can fit the nostrils. They are used for intranasally applied meds.
  • Sachets — these packaging are often made of plastics that may or may not be metallized. They are thinner, smaller and less inflatable than bags. They are single-use containers for small amounts of liquid, semisolid and solid meds.
  • Prefilled syringes — their cylinders are typically made of plastic, while their needles are composed of metal. The movable piston and the needle stopper are normally rubberized. Prefilled syringes are for injecting liquid formulations.
  • Tubes — these squeezable containers are normally made of metal or plastic. They are used as the primary packaging for ointments and creams.
  • Vials — they are made of glass or plastic, sealed with a rubber stopper and metal overseal. The rubber stoppers may be pierced repeatedly, making vials more suited than ampoules for multiple doses.

(b) Secondary Packaging Design

  • Blister packs — drugs that come in ampoules, small bottles, tubes, etc. are often further secured in blister packs.
  • Cartons — used for containing multiple cartridges, pill packs, small medicine bottles and other pharmaceutical items.
  • Metered-dose inhalers — they are made of plastic, but their cartridges are made of metal. Metered-dose inhalers can deliver a preset quantity of medication to the lungs.
  • Vacuum bags — mostly used by pharmaceutical repackers to prolong storage of pharmaceutical items.

(c) Higher-Level Packaging Design

Closing these pharmaceutical packages can be done in various ways. However, the most important concern for pharma companies is child-proofing medicine containers. Child-resistant containers can have press-turn, squeeze-turn or combination closures. They make the packages difficult for children to open but not adults. The ISO recommends that these closures undergo the “elderly adult test” as well to make them convenient for this demographic.

How Can Small Businesses Help in Making Drug Packaging Environment-Friendly?

When packaging pharmaceutical products, sustainability has traditionally taken a backseat behind other needs. For one, recycling pharmaceutical packages risks microbial contamination. For another, biodegradable containers can break down before their contents do, or both may react chemically and lead to spoilage. Additionally, recovery and recycling of used medical packaging tend to increase production costs, which can burden the consumers.

However, the consumers themselves are pushing for sustainability, even if it means raising medicine costs. Meanwhile, big pharma companies like Abbott Laboratories, Johnson and Johnson and Wyeth-Pfizer have taken the initiative to meet the increasing market demand for eco-friendly drug packaging. So far, efforts from various sectors have come up with the following solutions:

  1. Improving plastic segregation to make sure that recycled post-consumer plastic contains fewer contaminants. This makes the material easier to clean and purify.
  2. Formulating raw materials that do not generate much pharmaceutical waste.
  3. Avoiding over-packaging and wasteful packaging designs.
  4. Maximizing stretch wrap during shipment, reducing logistics costs and carbon emissions. Stretch wrap is lightweight and does not directly interact with drug products, so elastic film can be used to secure large volumes freely.
  5. Efficiency in using resources like electricity, water, raw materials, etc.
  6. Shifting to electronic recording to reduce paper waste.
  7. Using direct thermal labels for short-term purposes, such as barcoding single-dose medications.
  8. Making stronger recycled cardstock.
  9. Shifting to vegetable-based inks to minimize synthetic colorant use.
  10. Creating autoclavable plastic materials for pharmaceutical applications.

The global pharmaceutical packaging industry’s future goal is to make packaging sustainability a priority, just like performance. All stakeholders —consumers, pharmaceutical companies, healthcare organizations and government agencies— are currently making an effort to realize it.

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Pharmaceutical products are chemicals that need special types of packaging. The most important roles of drug packaging are containment, presentation, information, product and consumer protection, counterfeiting prevention and promotion of treatment adherence.

The packaging’s visual appeal becomes less important because patients need to assess drug information objectively. Likewise, sustainability in pharma packaging is secondary to other priorities due to safety, stability and cost concerns. However, there is an ongoing effort to make drug packaging more environment-friendly. Multi-sectoral cooperation is needed to meet this lofty goal.

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