Branded over-the-counter medicines can cost up to eight times as much as generic equivalents – and even 'own-brand' generics can cost more than three times as much as them – a MoneySavingExpert.com investigation reveals.
Our investigation looked at the price of branded, own-brand and generic medication, and the extent to which medicines marketed in different ways under the same brand can be very similar drugs.
We're publishing the findings today in our report Branded vs Generic: Cutting the cost of buying over-the-counter medicines, prepared with input from Professor Jayne Lawrence, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, and a second pharmacist with 37 years' experience.
Among the key findings:
- Branded medication costs on average nearly three times as much as generic equivalents that do the same job, based on a sample of 15 common over-the-counter medicines. And this is looking at the cheapest prices for both, not the most expensive.
- The worst offender we found was Nurofen – which was eight times the cost of a generic equivalent – followed by Clarityn then Anadin Paracetamol.
- Even some 'own-brand' generics sold by major pharmacy chains Boots and Lloyds are more than three times the price of the cheapest generic equivalent – and can actually cost MORE than branded equivalents.
- Major brands often have different packages for products with the same active ingredients, such as Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache.
The investigation comes as the Advertising Standards Authority announced it was banning a "misleading" TV advert which claimed a Nurofen product could specifically target joint and back pain.
For more information on how to cut medicine costs, see our 20 Medicine Savings guide.
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Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, says: "The pharmaceutical industry is full of genuine wizards. There are the ones who make the drugs that help in the first place. Then there are the marketeers who use a raft of tricks to persuade us there's hidden magic in their branded goods.
"Actually what really counts is the active ingredient. That's the stuff that does the job. If it's the same, sticking with branded drugs doesn't give extra aid to your health, it just hurts your wealth – with massive mark-ups that go to pay for their adverts and profits.
"These household-name firms also sell virtually identical products in different packaging, to make you think you've got a targeted special medicine for your condition – in fact it's just the same old thing. Yet the marketing creates a little doubt – we're all guilty of thinking 'surely there must be a reason for saying this one is good for back pain' – and when you're hurting you spend a little extra.
"Don't think Boots and Lloyds pharmacies are any better either. Some of their 'own brands', especially for hay fever, are far more costly than the generic tablets they also sell – and again it's the same active ingredient.
"Only those with allergies need to take care, as then you also need to check there's nothing in the 'non-active' ingredients that's different too."
Branded vs generic
To examine the scale of the price differences between branded and generic medicines, we compared the cost of 15 common over-the-counter drugs. Over a week in late June, we looked for the cheapest price we could find, in store and online where possible, at Asda, Boots, Home Bargains, Lloyds, Poundstretcher, Sainsbury's, Savers, Superdrug and Tesco.
We excluded independent pharmacies from the research as pricing can vary widely; though these are worth factoring in if you're buying, as some can be competitive.
We also excluded internet pharmacies due to the cost of delivery if you're not bulk-buying. In some cases these can substantially undercut prices, however, eg, hay fever Cetirizine (pack of 30) at 69p (plus delivery).
We've shown our findings below, with products ranked in order of the biggest percentage price difference.
Branded vs generic medicines
|Ranking||Branded product||Cheapest price||Generic equivalent||Cheapest price||Saving as a percentage|
|1||Nurofen (16)||£1.98 Asda||Ibuprofen (16)||25p Asda||87%|
|2||Clarityn (30)||£6 Sainsbury's (i)||Loratadine (30)||£1 Savers||83%|
|3||Anadin Paracetamol (16)||£1 Savers||Paracetamol (16)||19p Asda||81%|
|4||Nurofen Joint and Back Pain Gel 35g||£4 Asda||Ibuprofen gel 35g||99p Home Bargains||75%|
|5||Piriteze (30)||£6 Sainsbury's (i)||Cetirizine (30)||£1.49 Poundstretcher||75%|
|6||Sudafed Blocked Nose capsules (12)||£2.39 Lloyds||Max Strength Congestion Relief||60p Sainsbury's||75%|
|7||Anadin Extra (16)||£1.99 Lloyds||Aspirin Extra||54p Asda||73%|
|8||Imodium Original (6)||£2.19 Savers||Loperamide (6)||59p Home Bargains||73%|
|9||Nurofen Kids 100ml||£3.15 Sainsbury's||Ibuprofen 3mths+||95p Savers||70%|
|10||Vicks Sinex Micromist 15ml||£3 Asda||Nasal Decongestant Spray 15ml||£1 Asda/Tesco||67%|
|11||Calpol Infant 2mths+ 100ml||£2.98 Asda||Infant Paracetamol Suspension 100ml||£1.09 Home Bargains||63%|
|12||Corsodyl 300ml||£4.49 Superdrug||Chlorhexidine 300ml||£2 Sainsbury's||55%|
|13||Nurofen Migraine (12)||£2.65 Sainsbury's||Migraine Relief (12)||£1.35 Asda||49%|
|14||Lemsip Max sachets (10)||£2.69 Savers||Max Strength Cold and Flu||£1.76 Asda||35%|
|15||Piriton (30)||£3 Sainsbury's||Chlorphenamine Maleate (30)||£2.75 Tesco||8%|
|Prices checked between 21 & 27 June for medicine containing the same active ingredient, which is taken the same way. Verified with assistance from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. (i) Usually £9.|
While generic equivalents usually beat branded medicines on price and have the same active pharmaceutical ingredient, it's important to note other ingredients can differ. Make sure you're aware of any possible allergic reactions and ensure the medication you choose if correct for you – if in doubt, check with the pharmacist or your GP.
It's also worth noting that the flavours and taste of generic medication can differ from branded products too.
Massive mark-up on some 'own-brand' generics
We also looked at the cost of major stores' 'own-brand' generics.
You might assume these would be competitively priced. And in many cases they were. But in some cases we found a massive difference in cost. Certain hay fever 'own-brand' generics at Boots and Lloyds Pharmacy were more than three times the price of the cheapest generics out there – and surprisingly actually more expensive than a branded product.
How the cheapest 'own-brand' medicines compare
|Active ingredient||Asda||Boots||Lloyds||Sainsbury's||Tesco||Cheapest brand||Cheapest generic|
|Cetirizine (30)||£2.50||£8.19||£7.79||£2.75||£2.75||£6 (ii)||£1.49|
|Max Strength Cold & Flu (i)||£1.76||£2.99||£2.79||£2||£1.80||£2.69||£1.76|
|Loratadine (30)||£2.50||£8.19||£7.99||n/a||£2.75||£6 (ii)||£1|
|Prices checked between 21 & 27 June. Verified with assistance from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. (i) Paracetamol 1000mg, phenylephrine hydrochloride 12.2mg. (ii) Usually £9.|
A Boots spokesperson says: "As the UK's leading pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer, we are committed to offering great value and healthcare products and advice to our customers. We offer a wide range of hay fever and allergy treatments from various brands, allowing our customers to choose according to their own preference."
A Lloyds Pharmacy spokesperson says: "Lloyds Pharmacy offers the expert advice to ensure our customers find the right solution for their allergy needs.
"We have a range of combination therapies available including tablets, nasal sprays and eye drops, with promotional deals that offer great savings when customers purchase across all of these categories."
Different marketing of similar medicines
Medicines containing the same active ingredient can be marketed in many different ways, so at first glance they may appear to be entirely different products.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) allows non-prescription medicines to have "informative" names, such as Bloggs Pain Relief, to help customers choose a product without the help of pharmacy staff.
However, our investigation gives an idea of just how widespread the practice of marketing similar medicines in different ways is. For example, we found eight Nurofen products with ibuprofen as the active ingredient.
Some of these are formulated differently (ie, they're made in different ways – for example, liquid capsules can work faster than tablets). But even accounting for this, we identified from Boots.com at least eight medications with different "informative names", which the Royal Pharmaceutical Society told us had the same active ingredient and formulation as another product on sale.
Here's the list...
Ibuprofen Lysine 342mg
- Nurofen Migraine
- Nurofen Tension Headache
Ibuprofen 200mg Liquid Capsules
- Anadin Ultra
- Anadin Period Pain
Paracetamol 500mg, Caffeine 25mg, Phenylephrine Hydrochloride 6.1mg
- Sudafed Mucus Relief Day and Night
- Sudafed Congestion and Headache Relief
Paracetamol 250mg, Guaifenesin 100mg, Phenylephrine Hydrochloride 5mg
- Benylin Chesty Cough and Cold tablets
- Benylin Mucus Cough and Cold All in One Relief tablets
'Most patients won't notice a dramatic difference'
Professor Jayne Lawrence of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society says: "If it says ibuprofen 200mg, there's no doubt that is what is in the medicine, but it could be a liquid capsule rather than a tablet, which will then usually say 'faster release' (as long as they have proven that to the MHRA).
"Lysine is again a different way of making a drug and so could be quicker to release. Realistically most patients won't notice a dramatic difference, particularly if they are in constant pain."
A spokesperson for Reckitt Benckiser, which manufactures Lemsip and Nurofen, says: "Within our Nurofen and Lemsip portfolios we have a range of products (including those with different formulas, formulations and doses). It ensures we meet consumers' needs and provide easy navigation, particularly within the grocery environment where pharmacy support isn't available."
Similarly, a spokesperson for Pfizer, which makes Anadin, says: "The Anadin range contains a number of active ingredients which have been packaged to help consumers navigate the wide range available, so they can select the most suitable product for their symptoms.
"It can be helpful for the consumer to see specific types of pain called out on the packaging to aid them in their product selection."
Meanwhile, John Smith, of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, which represents the branded over-the-counter medicine industry, says branded medicines are often first to the market and so their producers carry higher development costs than those that follow.
He says: "While 20 years may be the standard length of patent for prescription medicines, this is not the case with OTC [over-the-counter] products.
"It is exceedingly rare for new OTC medicines to have any form of protection on entry to the market. Other companies are then free to make their own versions, and as they don't bear the original development costs they can sell it at a lower price."
Johnson & Johnson were unavailable to comment.