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What is Pharmaceutical Packaging Made Of?

MedLock | August 13, 2021

array of medications and medication packaging like blister packs, bottles, boxes, and jars
Compliance pharmaceutical packaging comes in many forms. From blister packs to vials, safe packaging is imperative.

Pharmaceutical packaging is built to be safe, secure, informative, and convenient to use. More specifically, the two main functions of medical packaging and pharmaceutical packaging are to keep the product safe and to inform the user about proper medication use. Proper packaging is necessary to preserve pharmaceutical products during storage and to prevent degradation. This includes shielding the product from temperature, humidity, light, and other environmental factors.


Pharmaceutical Packaging Involves Layers

Packaging plays a main role in the pharmaceutical industry. When medication is packaged, especially over-the-counter products, it often comes in several layers of packaging. There are, in fact, three different layers of packaging:

cardboard box open to show two layers of blister packs with white and blue tablets inside
Primary packaging, like these aluminum blister packs, are housed in a layer of secondary packaging like this cardboard box.

Primary Packaging refers to the innermost layer of packaging. This layer of packaging comes in direct contact with a pill, liquid, powder, or other pharmaceutical product. Primary packaging must maintain a stable internal environment to prevent the breakdown of the drug thereby ensuring the medication remains safe to use. Bottles often have a sachet inside that helps regulate moisture and temperature within the storage vessel. Primary packaging can come in the form of bottles, jars, tubes, pouches, blister packs, vials, syringes, and so on.


Secondary packaging is the layer of packaging that houses the primary storage vessel. The purpose of secondary packaging is to communicate product information to the consumer to ensure the medication is safely stored and ingested.

two cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other with the word pharmacy and a truck icon
Tertiary packaging is used for shipping and transporting pharmaceuticals.

Tertiary packaging is the layer of packaging used to ship the products. Tertiary packaging is meant to secure the contents inside from external factors during storage and transport.


If you start from the outermost layer working inwards, you could have only two layers. This could be a carboard box with blister packs of pills inside. In this case, there is only a secondary layer (the box) and a primary layer (the blister pack). Tertiary packaging comes into play during the shipping process. Pharmaceutical companies don't ship thousands of individual boxes of medication such as the one described. Instead, it is enclosed in tertiary packaging to keep products safe during storage and transport.


Pharma Packaging Starts With Safe Materials

Packaging materials for pharmaceuticals must be made of food-grade materials approved by governing healthcare organizations. The materials must be able to safely come into contact with an ingestible without emitting toxins or otherwise affecting the product. The pharmaceutical industry has been notoriously known for only using virgin plastics to store products. Of course, this is not a sustainable practice and trends are therefore changing.


A pharmaceutical packaging company must offer products specifically designed for the medication it is intended to store. For example, liquid medications like methadone, must be stored in child resistant, tamper evident bottles that are both leakproof and shatterproof. In this way, packaging can play an integral role in enhancing harm reduction efforts in addiction treatment.

Glass

Glass is a popular material for medical packaging. This includes glass vials, ampoules, bottles, jars, syringes, and so on. Such packaging is ideal for liquids, injectables, dry powders, capsules, and tablets. Glass is a safe material because it does not emit any chemicals that could interact with and potentially changed the structural composition of the medication. Glass packaging can also come in opaque and translucent formats to protect pharmaceuticals from the harmful effects of UV rays. If you ever walk into the supplement aisle of a store, you will notice that most bottles are amber, green, or other dark colours.


Plastic

Plastic packaging and polymer-based packaging is another highly popular material used in pharmaceutical packaging. Plastic is shatterproof, durable, highly versatile, and can be safely transported. Bottles, jars, oral syringes, polybags, sachets, and portions of blister packaging made from plastic are therefore widely used.


Specific, food-grade plastics must be used to prevent any adverse interactions between the pharmaceutical product and the plastic. Popular plastics used in compliant pharmaceutical packaging include polypropylene (P.P.), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and high-density PET (HDPE). Plastic is also more affordable than glass to produce, and generally more sustainable given the significant amount of energy required to manufacture glass.

several aluminum blister packs with round tablets of different sizes
Blister packs are a primary layer of packaging made from aluminum and plastic.
Aluminum

Aluminum is also used in pharmaceutical packaging in the form of blister packs and foil seals. Blister packs are typically used for tablets and gel capsules. This packaging format also functions as tamper evident packaging because a pill cannot be removed with breaking the blister.


Paper and Cardboard

Cardboard and other paper-based materials are used as secondary and tertiary pharmaceutical packaging only. This includes boxes, bags, cartons, and more.


Packaging Design

Safe pharmaceutical packaging and other medical packaging must be designed with several features in mind. Of course, manufacturers and suppliers are concerned with the cost of materials and production during the design process. Designing packaging for compatibility with fillers and cappers is also another factor taken into consideration.


However, pharmaceutical packaging should be designed to accommodate the needs of the consumer while also maintaining safety. This means protecting children by using child resistant medical packaging. It also means choosing the right materials and structure based on the chemical composition of the medication being stored in the packaging.

The Shift to Organic Materials

Given the environmental concerns associated with packaging production and waste, there has been a greater shift towards using eco-friendly, organic, and biodegradable materials in pharmaceutical packaging. This is especially true of smaller healthcare brands and companies that sell supplements.


The raw materials used in sustainable medical packaging come from plants, animals, agricultural waste, ocean plastic, recycled plastics, and more. This can include cellulose, starch, cellulose, gelatin, and so on. Biodegradable packaging materials are becoming increasingly popular. Despite the (generally) higher cost of products housed in sustainable packaging, most consumers will pay a premium to help reduce their own carbon footprint. More and more consumers are looking for socially and environmentally responsible brands. We can therefore expect the popularity of sustainable packaging to continue rising.

Medicine packaging regulations

The pharmaceutical industry is governed by very strict packaging guidelines. Health Canada and the FDA are two such regulating bodies. These regulations apply to note only the packaging itself, but the manufacturing practices and facilities to ensure good manufacturing practices (GMP) are being followed. Manufacturing facilities must be certified under various ISO standards. This includes clean room certifications to ensure production facilities are sterile.


Specific licenses must also be obtained for specific packaging for medical devices (e.g., MDL, MDEL). The World Health Organization (WHO) has also established international standards for pharmaceutical packaging.


In general, all pharmaceutical products must have child resistant packaging with tamper evident features to help track chain of custody. There are also a host of elements that must be included on all product labels. This includes information like lot number, expiration date, proper product storage, proper product use and dosing, all active ingredients, and more.

Pharmaceuticals Rely on Compliance Packaging

As you can see, pharmaceutical packaging solutions play a key role in the healthcare sector and pharmaceutical industry. This is why it is imperative to use safe packaging materials as well as compliant packaging design for any and all pharmaceutical products.

MedLock Has You Covered

MedLock is proud to offer a range of child resistant medical packaging and tamper evident medical packaging. LiquiMedLock™ products are fully compliant and meet all necessary safey standards for compliance pharmaceutical packaging. All compliant cannabis packaging offered by CannaLock™ is also child resistant tested and certified to ensure safe product storage. Check out Our Values to learn more about the licenses and certifications we hold for good manufacturing practices.

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