People who regularly take prescription drugs know generics are a lot cheaper and generally as effective. But what many people might not know is that generic over-the-counter medications are a good deal, too.
Store brands from chain drugstores, large discounters and warehouse clubs have the same active ingredients as name brands and must gain approval by the Food and Drug Administration, just like the brands that are household names.
So for medications, pain relievers, cough and cold remedies, vitamins and even first-aid supplies, consider buying store brands to save money. Some households could save hundreds of dollars a year.
"We urge consumers to shop for their over-the-counter medicines and not be so slavishly loyal to brand names," said Steve Findlay, a health care analyst at Consumers Union. "Store brands are exactly the same as name brands. They're not inferior products whatsoever. In fact, they're superior by being less expensive and providing better value."
Among the times to buy name-brand medications are when no store-brand equivalent is available, when you are too rushed to seek out the store brand and compare active ingredients, or when the store brand doesn't offer the form you prefer, such as gel caps over tablets. In the end, you decide how much extra you are willing to pay for the trust and familiarity of name brands.
Annual sales total $2.5 billion for private-label brands of over-the-counter medications and medical supplies. They make up about a quarter of the market for most categories of over-the-counter medications, according to ACNielsen data supplied by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. For most categories, sales of private-label medications are up about 10 percent from the year before.
Drugstore chain CVS Caremark Corp. recently conducted focus groups on what consumers thought about over-the-counter store brands.
"About half the group referenced to us the economy and trying to find ways to save money," said Debbie Armstrong, CVS Caremark divisional merchandise manager of store brands. "They saw buying store brands as a way to help make ends meet." Here are some questions and answers about nonprescription store brands:
*Are store brands safe and effective?
While standing in the store aisle, flip over packages of both a store brand and name brand. Examine ingredients on the label. You can see line by line how the store brand is the same as the name brand. Pay special attention to the first several ingredients, which are "active" ingredients, those that work on your symptoms.
Store brands and name brands go through the same rigorous process at the FDA to ensure safety and effectiveness.
In fact, manufacturers that make name brands also frequently make some store-brand products.
If you're in a drugstore and uncertain about buying a store brand for your symptoms, ask the pharmacist.
Some stores will offer a money-back guarantee on private-label items. At those locations, you're putting no money at risk by trying a store brand. If you don't like it for some reason, take it back for a refund.
*How much can I save?
In part because private-label products have lower advertising and marketing costs, they sell for a fraction of the cost of name brands. At CVS, for example, consumers can save upward of 30 percent with over-the-counter store brands, Armstrong said.
*How else can I save?
Buying larger quantities usually results in a markedly lower unit price. And you don't have to worry about buying too much. Medications are effective long after their expiration dates, Findlay said, especially if you don't keep them in a humid bathroom medicine cabinet, a practice that might reduce a medication's potency.
If you're buying at a chain pharmacy, become familiar with the drugstore loyalty programs, which can save significant money through discounts and rebates. If you have a medical flexible-spending account, be sure to use that money for over-the-counter medications.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.