This post may contain *affiliate links.
Money, Save It, Wellbeing

How to save money on OTC medicine

Packets of tablets, set against a red background.

You may have read about how big brands market medicine. They make their product sound revolutionary, but do they actually differ from basic brands? Not always. Are they more expensive? Usually. Here’s how I cut through the hype and save money on OTC (over-the-counter) medicine. 

PL codes matter

Money-saving guru Martin Lewis has spoken about PL codes (Product Licence Numbers) and how they’re used within the pharmaceutical industry. You’ll find a Product Licence Number on every medicine. The code uniquely identifies a product and it usually remains the same, despite the marketing and the branding used by the company selling it.

I know it’s business and that loads of industries do similar things. But personally I find it a bit exploitative that pharmaceutical companies operate in this way. If I read that a medicine is going to target my headache or alleviate my period pain in minutes and I’m in pain, then I’m probably going to buy it. In that moment, getting rid of my ailment is worth whatever it costs. But is it ethical to target people when they’re vulnerable? I’m not sure it is. 

Now I don’t go around comparing PL codes to save money. I haven’t got the time or the inclination to do this. But I do think it’s interesting that pharmaceutical companies sometimes charge based on marketing rather than the product and this knowledge has changed how I shop for medicine. This is what I do:

How to save money on OTC medicine

1) Stock up when you’re well

The last thing I want to be doing is rocking up at the chemist with a raging toothache. If I did that, I would just grab the first medicine I saw that had “faster, more effective relief” on the side. 

Medicine really isn’t the thing you want to be buying when you feel ill, so I ensure I always have the essentials in the medicine cupboard.

2) Compare the active ingredient

If the targeted painkiller claims it will cure my headache in minutes, then I look for the active ingredient. If it’s a headache, period pain, or back ache that the drug is claiming to fix, then its usually ibuprofen. I will then look at how much ibuprofen the tablet has and a quick glance down the medicine aisle will lead me to a cheaper, non-branded alternative that contains the same amount of ibuprofen. 

I have been doing this for over three years now. And not once have I reflected that I should have bought the branded alternative.  

3) Check how much you get in the packet

These pharmaceutical companies know that if a box of 6 is the same size as a packet of 18, then you might not notice. Until you get home and open the packet that is. 

I’ve been caught out by this on numerous occasions, so I always check home many tablets I am getting. I also look at how much it is per pill (this information is usually displayed on the supermarket’s product label).

4) Speak to the pharmacist

If I have time then I will ask the pharmacist directly for a recommendation. Usually, if I explain what the ailment is, they will talk me through the different brands they have in stock. I then ask what the difference is between the cheapest and the most expensive. To date, I’ve always got the same response: “they’re the same”. This tells me everything I need to know. 

If you’re unable to speak to a pharmacist in person, then an online pharmacist like Simply Meds Online may be able to help.

5) Look at the flavour

If I am buying my son a medicine, then I will check the flavour. I know what he likes and what he will swallow without fuss, so I always make a mental note of the flavour before selecting a children’s liquid medicine. There’s no point in buying the cheapest brand available if your child won’t swallow it because they don’t like the taste of oranges.  

The image shows a woman in a blue shirt, sneezing into a tissue. The text over the image reads: ‘5 ways to save money on over-the-counter medicine’.

Is it worth it?

If you can get the same or similar for less, than I always think it’s worth it, so I try to save money on OTC medicine where I can. 

Let’s say you’re shopping in Superdrug. At the time of writing, you could purchase a box of 16 targeted painkillers, containing 200mg of ibuprofen, for £2.29 (14.03p per tablet). Or, you could buy a different brand of 16 tablets, which also contain 200mg of ibuprofen, in the same shop for 69p (4.31p per tablet). I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have that £1.60 in my purse. That said, you might not have to buy anything at all. Check out these homeopathic cold and flu remedies that you might already have the ingredients for at home!

If you get regular prescriptions, then it may also be worth investing in an NHS PPC. This might not be the most glamourous way to save money, but it is worth looking into. If you’re trying to save extra cash, you should also read my roundup of ways to save money on a tight budget.

Note: if in doubt, always ask your pharmacist for advice and remember to always read the leaflet that comes with your medication.