Ever read an FDA label? You know, the rectangular box printed on the back of the bottle? It tells you what the medicine is, how it works, how often to apply it, how not to mix it with alcohol, etc.
Towards the bottom of the label there’s a list called, “Inactive Ingredients.” Inactive? Why give a second glance to a list of meaningless inactive stuff? Because if you’ve ever seen The Wizard of Oz, then you know there can be a lot more to something than meets the eye.
Before we leave Kansas here, let’s first look at how the FDA defines these things.
According to the FDA, an active ingredient is:
Any component of a drug product intended to furnish pharmacological activity or other direct effect in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or to affect the structure or any function of the body of humans or other animals. Active ingredients include those components of the product that may undergo chemical change during the manufacture of the drug product and be present in the drug product in a modified form intended to furnish the specified activity or effect.
According to the FDA, an inactive ingredient is…
Any component of a drug product other than the active ingredient.
This is where things get a little fuzzy. What’s interesting to us is that they make no mention of how the inactive ingredients actually affect your body or how they could help you. And that’s where a lot of people get confused, including us back in the day.
SO, WHAT'S BEHIND THE CURTAIN?
If you pull back the curtain on many products many times the “inactive” stuff is used for coloring or flavoring the medication. We get that. These ingredients are not really doing anything to help you feel good. So no argument about calling them inactive.
But typically inactive ingredients make up 90% or more of any medication. That’s a lot of stuff to not be doing anything. The thinking here is, just because these things are labeled “inactive” doesn’t mean they don’t help with effectiveness.
Time to reveal the man behind the curtain. Here are the 6 biggest reasons that inactive ingredients matter:
- Just because the FDA has not approved an ingredient doesn’t mean it doesn’t help you. This one is controversial. But it makes sense. Not every substance has been reviewed and approved by the FDA to be effective. But to say that the ones that haven’t been approved are ineffective would be the wrong way to think about it. Many ingredients out there have a ton of science and research to support the fact that they help treat certain ailments, despite the FDA considering them inactive. Take Arnica for instance. One research project in Switzerland with 204 patients showed that Arnica gel reduced pain and increased function in arthritis sufferers. And when patients were asked to compare the effects of the Arnica gel to ibuprofen, they preferred the Arnica gel. Arnica is considered inactive though. You see? Not so intuitive is it? There are countless other ingredients just like Arnica.
- Inactive ingredients can keep medication stable. Medication is only good if it’s still intact when it reaches you. Many substances simply are not stable enough to sit on a shelf for periods of time without becoming ineffective. That said, some inactive ingredients play the role of keeping the medication fresh. The problem is that this is also where many companies take the easy route by including synthetic preservatives that could be bad for you. More on that in a minute.
- Inactive ingredients can help your body absorb more medicine. This is a big one. Often times there are certain substances that can be tricky to introduce into your body. But sometimes you can pair one substance with another to help with absorption. Aloe Vera is a great example of this. In addition to being a great anti-inflammatory itself, Aloe Vera can be used to condition your skin to help you absorb other substances. Still thinking inactive ingredients don’t do anything?
- Inactive ingredients can help transform other ingredients so your body can absorb them. This is similar to the last point. Instead of the inactive ingredient reacting with your body to help you absorb other ingredients, they’ll often react with other substances in the medication. Tiny chemical reactions can occur between ingredients, thus transforming the things into states that your body can easily absorb. These types of substances are called emollients. Caprylic Acid, which is made from coconut oil, is great example of a powerful one.
- You could be paying for junk. Unfortunately many companies use inactive ingredients to bulk up their products. It’s an easy way to make more money. Think about it. If you’re buying 4 ounces of a cream versus 2 ounces, you feel like you’re getting more for your money. That’s not always true. Check what’s in the product. You could be shelling out your hard earned money for just a bunch of fillers.
- Some inactive ingredients can be bad for you. We’re not trying to scare you here, but it’s true. Many times when people run into issues with medication, the problem lies within the list inactive ingredients. You could be allergic to something, or the manufacturer could have stuck a poor quality ingredient in there that wasn’t exactly safe. The point is, it’s important to look at the ingredients, know what they are, and know what to avoid.
A COUPLE INACTIVE INGREDIENTS TO AVOID
Listen, when anyone starts saying that something is bad for people, you’re going to find contradicting information and opinions out there. Our stance is that if there is buzz around something being bad there is likely at least some truth behind it. And if you don’t believe us, you should definitely go research more on your own. Here are a couple things that there is just too much buzz to ignore.
PARABENS. WHAT ARE THEY?
From cosmetics to pharmaceuticals, parabens are one of those preservatives that sustain shelf life and keep bacteria and mold growth at bay. Which sounds great, but studies have actually linked parabens to promoting cancer cells. In 2004, the Journal of Applied Toxicology published a study by Dr. Philippa Darbre stating that Parabens are found in breast cancer tumors. Since then, the FDA has stated in an official post: “…there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.” But we’re also pretty sure the government was all for tobacco and flame-retardants at some point as well. (Ever heard of Merchants of Doubt?) So regardless of whether or not Parabens are completely proven to be bad for you, we say, “why risk it?”
WHAT ABOUT CABOMERS?
Another sneaky ingredient that’s often mistaken for organic are Carbomers. A chemical glob of polymers, this molecular mass is a thickening substance (think gelatin) that helps to aid in the dispersing of pharmaceutical agents. Sounds neat. Except there is nothing natural found in the chemistry of Carbomers. One may believe it’s a plant-based ingredient, especially when found as an ingredient listed on the back of a tube of Aloe Vera lotion. But it is an entirely synthetic material and now known to be potentially harmful.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
It’s pretty simple. Inactive ingredients matter. They’re not useless. They’re not what you’d intuitively think of as inactive. You should not only know what they are, but you should be on the look out for the bad ones and the good ones. Some companies (ahem, like ours) use inactive ingredients to increase the quality of their product. That means, using every available ounce to add things that are safe, effective, and designed to work together to help you feel good. But that’s just us. Oh sorry, company plug over.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Knowledge is power when it comes to this stuff. But researching every ingredient is definitely not quick. Good news. People have done the work for you for hundreds of thousands of products. We recommend two apps that you can use to simply scan products with your smartphone before you buy them.