Everything You Wanted to Know About the Drugstore: A Conversation With Experts

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If you’re like us, you tend to ponder the same things over and over when you go into the drugstore: Are generics just as good as the name brand? Is it really fine to get my flu shot here? How about my running socks? And so we posed the following 20 questions to experts — pediatricians, podiatrists, fashion people, a hangover specialist — to get some official answers. The takeaways include good news about off-brand Band-Aids and pregnancy tests, quick fixes for blisters and pant rips, and a set of guidelines for what to look for in your vitamin labels. Should you also happen to be curious about the most popular CVS purchases among New Yorkers (they include melatonin, of course), read on for a list of those, too.

1) Is there a circumstance where I should be buying name brand over-the-counter medication instead of a generic drugstore brand?

According to Dr. Judy Tung, internal medicine specialist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, the FDA pretty strictly regulates the amount and quality of the active ingredient in both varieties of medication. So there aren’t obvious or known situations where brand is superior over generic here. But, Tung does note that it can sometimes be easier to shop for generics, simply because they’re labeled more clearly (e.g., you’ll see a bottle of “Acetaminophen” and know just what you’re getting — the analgesic/fever reducer — as opposed to having to look more closely at a brand-name bottle in order to decode what’s in it). Whether the medication is name brand or generic, Tung notes that the taste, color, and texture can impact your overall experience with it, which is why she personally buys those in transparent containers, to make sure the tablets are coated, and not too big: “’I know coarse, large pills are harder to swallow,” she says, “and pills without coating will taste bitter.”

2) What’s the deal with expiration dates? Can I take Advil or similar pain relievers after they’ve expired?

Most medications are stamped as good for one year, and that merely means that the company attests to the quality of their product — to the fact that the active ingredients won’t degrade (and therefore give you less relief) — for that amount of time. But just because the company is no longer liable after that point doesn’t necessarily mean the product has gone bad or become ineffective. Tung’s general advice is that you’re probably safe within a year after the expiration date. “Beyond that, it’s probably best just to replace it with a new bottle,” she says.

3) Why do Q-Tip-brand swabs feel so much more comfortable against my skin than the generic kind?

Dr. Mindy Gallagher of Tribeca Pediatrics thinks it has to do with the amount of cotton on the tip, as well as how tightly the cotton is spun (“It doesn’t unravel as much”). Dr. Amna Husain of Pure Direct Pediatric attributes the difference to slightly higher quality cotton. We couldn’t get much in the way of specifics out of Unilever, the Q-Tip parent company, but a representative did stress that “Q-tips® cotton swab sticks are made with paper sourced from sustainable forests and have never been made with plastic.” (Either way, of course, don’t stick those swabs inside your or your child’s ears.)

4) How many pregnancy tests do I actually need to buy for an accurate result? It seems like women will typically go and buy four or five different brands.

Buying more than one is likely a huge waste of money, according to Dr. Jennifer Ashton, OB-GYN and author of “The Self-Care Solution.” She explains that most tests will detect HCG (the pregnancy hormone) levels even under 50, which is a pretty high level of detection for a urine test. “Many women just buy them too soon, when that level of hormone isn’t yet detectable in urine,” she says, noting the usual recommendation is not to take a test until at least one day after a missed period. As for what brands she recommends, Ashton says that if she were buying one today, she’d choose a generic. “They’re all the same,” she says.

5) What are the best drugstore vitamin brands?

First, some rules of thumb: “When you’re at the drugstore, look for vitamins that are free of fillers (starch, silicon dioxide, corn maltodextrin) and dyes, which inhibit absorption,” says naturopathic doctor Maura Henninger. She advises customers to steer clear of ingredients like magnesium stearate, artificial colors and flavors, and hydrogenated fats, too. Dr. Griffin McMath, a naturopathic physician who works for the Institute for Natural Medicine, also looks for things like “no gluten” or “no soy” on the bottle. Henninger says to scan the labels for third party certification labels like the NSF stamp — although, taking out some of the guesswork going forward, CVS announced in May that it will only sell vitamins and supplements that have been third-party-tested for safety and label accuracy.

As for specific brands that meet these doctors’ standards: Nature’s Bounty, recommended by Henninger; Nordic Naturals, Enzymatic Therapy, and Gaia Herbs, all recommended by Dr. Jaquel Patterson, a licensed naturopathic physician; and Rainbow Light and New Chapter, recommended by Nicole Egenberger, a naturopathic doctor and clinical director. McMath is a little more choosy in this realm and believes that if you’re in a pinch, even if you’re using the brands above as a guide, the only vitamins she’d suggest buying from the drugstore as opposed to a more specialized retailer are vitamin C (for immune support), melatonin (for a better night’s sleep), and certain forms of magnesium (for tense or tired muscles).

6) I have a massive hangover, can the drugstore bring me relief?

Aside from the classics — an anti-inflammatory like Advil, plus a beverage with sodium, like Pedialyte or possibly Gatorade (just watch the sugar content, as sugar can make you even more nauseous) — there are supplements for this, according to Dr. Jason Burke, a physician dedicated to the study and treatment of the hangover. He does actually give credence to certain hangover cures you might see targeting you on Instagram these days, given that they often contain multiple helpful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories all in one capsule. Of course, these one-stop products typically aren’t available at the drugstore. But Burke says you can cobble together your own treatment using a combination of the following list: Alpha Lipoic acid (a powerful antioxidant that restores levels of vitamin E and C; go for the 200-400mg range), Curcumin (a natural anti-inflammatory; take a 500mg capsule), Milk Thistle (an herbal remedy and antioxidant for liver protection that typically comes in 250mg capsules), and a high quality multivitamin (the B vitamins in there, in particular, will help the body to process alcohol byproduct). According to Burke, this combo is akin to a pre-workout supplement, in that it gives your system the tools and supplies to deal with stress on the body. And he adds that, because it will help bring down inflammation, you’ll probably notice less hangover-puffy-pace, too. Advanced tip: If you’re able to plan ahead, Burke highly recommends taking these supplements 20 minutes before you start drinking–or, as the next-best option, before you go to bed after partying. Same goes for the old advice Advil before bed, too, because “it short-circuits the inflammation that’s going to set up overnight.”

7) Back to the subject of generics: Are CVS band-aids (60 for $3.19) as good as the Band-Aid (20 for $5.79) brand? Do they stick as well?

Not only are they as good, but they might even be better. “They both stay on very well, and I think the CVS brand band-aids are a little easier to take off, which is advantageous when it comes to kids,” says Dr. Gallagher of Tribeca Pediatrics. Dr. Husain of Pure Direct Pediatric agrees, noting that while every band-aid brand varies slightly, they all stick pretty well. Husain adds that those with sensitive skin might have a reaction to the adhesive in band-aids, but that she hasn’t noticed generic brands causing necessarily any more sensitivity. No matter the brand, as a general bonus tip, Dr. Husain suggests looking for band-aids with thicker padding, as thinner ones tend to come off more easily if water gets under them when you’re washing your hands or showering.

8) Is there any reason not to get a flu-shot at the drugstore?

Nope, none at all. “Drugstores purchase the same serum that we purchase in the hospital and all of the pharmacists are now credential certified to administer vaccines,” says Tung. Gallagher agrees, but does point out that adults with young children tend to feel more comfortable with someone they know administering the shot, rather than a stranger. There are different types of flu shots, Tung notes, such as a senior flu shot that’s recommended for folks over the age of 65 as well as a trivalent or quadrivalent form (the former meaning they throw three flu strains in that serum and the latter indicating that there are four). A doctor will make this distinction for you in the office, which could be an advantage over the drugstore route if you don’t know which to choose. “The fourth strain usually is an extra Influenza B strain, which is almost always a lesser play in flu season,” Tung says, though this year, we’re seeing a little bit more of Influenza B than we historically have. So if you’re still shopping for your flu shot and have the option, the quadrivalent form might be a superior choice.

9) Are any of the CBD products sold at the drugstore legit?

Even though CBD is still not exactly common at the drugstore, it’s only a matter of time, with Walgreens and CVS both announcing last spring that they would begin to sell CBD products in select states. The CBD industry remains unregulated, keep in mind, so buying these products can always be a gamble. That said, an early available-at-drugstores brand of CBD that seems promising to Mike France, CEO of cannabis-product-testing company Proper, is Social CBD (which recently rebranded from the name Select CBD, as you might still see it labeled at CVS). France (who has no affiliation with Social CBD) says the widely distributed brand gets his approval because they offer products with tested and verified source materials (his other general tips on what to look for in CBD are full-spectrum, whole-plant-extract products that come from locally sourced plants). Another big, generally well-regarded name in this world is Charlotte’s Web, which can be found at independent drugstores (that goes for the whole range of their products, including the oils and the gummies) as well as at CVS.

10) Are more expensive reading glasses better for your eyes than drugstore readers?

Drugstore readers are not going to damage your eyes or cause you any harm, according to Dr. Samuel Guillory, an ophthalmologist and associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai. The only drugstore pitfall is that you may notice, as have some of Guillory’s patients, that even when using the same prescription there can be inconsistencies from one pair to the next, since the quality of product isn’t as well regulated. The companies charging more tend to have better quality control (Guillory compares this to buying clothes from a custom garment shop that makes sure all of the buttons and hems are sewn the same way). But then, if you just take a little extra time to test out the glasses in the drugstore — wearing them while looking over a book, say — you can walk out with a perfectly fine pair at a very low price.

11) What are the best drugstore running socks?

There are two main qualities you’re going to want to look for in an athletic drugstore sock, says David Roche, a running coach at SWAP Running who wears drugstore socks himself while running. Thinner socks are often preferable, so be sure to feel the material and make sure they’re not too padded, otherwise you can essentially end up with sponges on your feet, absorbing all the moisture. Secondly, try to seek out slightly higher-cut socks, which Roche says won’t slide around on your foot as much as a low-rise or ankle style. “Assuming the quality of the sock isn’t the best in the world, crew cut socks will stay put.” Personally, Roche tends to pick the darkest color available among drugstore socks, for fear that “a white drugstore sock might make you look like you’re 80 years old and at a barbeque” — which is why he particularly likes these Gildan socks, which are breathable and don’t hold onto too much moisture.

12) My new shoes already gave me a blister on my commute to work. What at the drugstore can help me through the day?

For a bandage seal that comes in a range of sizes, Dr. Casey Ann Pidich of Park Avenue Podiatric Care, creator of The Glass Slipper Shoe Blog, recommends Welly Blister Blasters: “The larger ones work really well for a blister on the back of your heel,” Pidich says, “or on the top or side of your foot, and are great for withstanding shoe friction.” (They’re also made with a thick plastic that adheres well to your skin and aren’t latex, so they’re fine if you, like many people, have a latex allergy.) She recommends wrapping the smaller size Welly bandages not only around the blistered part of the foot but, if possible, also around the strap of a shoe that’s bothering you, such as a sandal’s T-strap. Another drugstore band-aid Pidich likes are the Walgreens Extreme Blister Cushions: “I don’t think they’re as sticky as the Welly Blister Blasters, but they definitely stay put after showering,” she says. Podiatrist Dr. Yolanda Ragland, meanwhile, is partial to the Band-Aid Hydro Seal, which are dual action, so they’ll keep the germs out while also helping your blister heal. Finally, Pidich says, you’re going to want to add a layer of moleskin onto the part of the shoe that’s giving you a blister–the felt exterior can minimize all that rubbing.

13) When I’m doing a walk of shame, what can I get at the drugstore to look less like I’m doing a walk of shame?

The key here is integrating your drugstore purchases with last night’s outfit for a high-low vibe, says Natalie Toren, a stylist for magazines like Elle and Bon Appétit. And that usually involves men’s undershirts. She likes Hanes over Fruit of the Loom as their T-shirts tend to be stiffer: “If you’re trying to look crisp and clean after a wild night, that heft will help prevent a T-shirt from looking sloppy,” she says. They’ll often sell boy’s sizes, too, Toren adds, so if you’re a women’s small or medium, grab a boys’ XL. “Even a boxy shirt will look deliberate with the sleeves rolled (two times, please) and tucked into a pant,” she notes. “Bonus points if you happen to have worn a blazer out partying.” Bandanas and scarves in some drugstore aisles can be helpful for styling hair or as a makeshift belt, too. And a final useful accessory are cheap sunglasses: “Stick with black,” Toren says.

14) What if I ripped my pants?

Toren routinely stocks her styling kit with the travel-sized sewing sets that drugstores sell, with their pre-threaded needles. Don’t worry about being precise (or even really knowing how to sew at all): “Think of the Japanese art of Sashiko,” Toren says, a functional embroidery technique that literally translates to “little pierce” — all sewing needs to be are little stabs that connect one side of the rip to the other. The easiest fixes tend to be those in the knee area (which look cool on jeans, not so much on those cropped wool pants). If the rip is in the crotch area, Toren says not to bother–instead, head to the hosiery section for opaque black tights or leggings, and layer them underneath (men can look for dark boxers). Another of Toren’s temporary fixes: Pick up an extra long white T-shirt (like the aforementioned Hanes) to cover your rip (see here for a Reddit deep dive on sizing), or find a large tourist-y nylon jacket to tie around your waist.

15) How can I make drugstore earrings look cool? 

First make sure you won’t be allergic to them, says Lori Leven, owner of New York Adorned. She suggests sticking to pairs made of titanium or nickel-free stainless steel. “People are very rarely allergic to these metals,” Leven notes. One common jewelry brand found at drugstores — the “I AM” line — uses surgical steel, which, according to the nickel regulation for jewelry, can be described as nickel-free (however, the company notes that it always contains a very small concentration of nickel, so it’s not suitable for fresh piercings). As for aesthetics, Leven likes these 8mm titanium hoops. “They’re made of nickel-free titanium, so they’re good for sensitive ears, and look nice in a second hole. Still not appropriate for fresh piercings, but A-OK for healed ones.” Another fun tip: Instead of having a hoop hang from one piercing, loop the hoop into two piercings that are next to each other (like this). Meanwhile at select CVS locations (including an Astoria and Manhattan store in New York), if you purchase a pair of Studex earrings starting at $25, you can also get a free piercing.

16) What’s the best drugstore hair dye?

According to most professional hair stylists, the chemicals in the majority of at-home hair dye kits are harsh and unpredictable; experts generally don’t recommend using them. But if you must, one brand that’s considered the least damaging is Herbatint, a natural dye formulated with herbal extracts, including rosemary, cinchona and walnut husk, and without irritating ammonia, alcohol, fragrance, or parabens.

“I recommend Herbatint because it doesn’t have any of the harsh chemicals that a lot of at-home kits do,” says Mirjam Bayoumi, a hair colorist with an eponymous salon on the Upper East Side. “It’s a more of a natural approach, and a way of covering your grays or going darker.” Bayoumi uses the dye herself, and says she likes the subdued colors offered by the brand and that it doesn’t irritate her sensitive scalp, thanks to the inclusion of soothing aloe vera. The Herbatint dye comes in thirty-six natural shades that can be mixed for the just-right match to your own hair. Then again, if you’re looking for something a bit less subdued, Dhiran Mistry, a stylist at David Mallett salon, says some good old Manic Panic will do the trick.

17) I need an extremely last-minute gift for my aspiring fashion-writer cousin. What can I get at the drugstore that doesn’t look like a gift from the drugstore?

Strategist columnist Chris Black suggests giving the gift of magazines. “Your cousin may have forgotten about print, but you didn’t!” Grab all the new rags, says Black: New York Magazine (hehe), Vanity Fair, Elle, The Economist, maybe even Us Weekly and Star. “They will serve as an instant conversation starter: which covers everyone likes, which headlines are ridiculous. Like a board game, but more fun and gossipy.” If you feel like this isn’t enough for a gift, Black suggests pulling out the subscription card of your recipient’s favorite title and buying them 12 months of cold hard print on the spot: “The gift that keeps on giving,” he says.

18) It’s 10 p.m. and I need dinner — what’s a healthy-ish option at the drugstore?

If there’s no fresh vegetables available in the refrigerated section, integrative nutritionist Daphne Javitch suggests starting with a drugstore “smoothie” — a kids’ veggie pouch (she recommends picking an organic pack with mostly — or all — veggies). From there, it’s easy to piece together a full meal, whether that be with the grab-and-go options (hard-boiled eggs and cheese sticks) or instant oatmeal (the simpler the better; skip artificial flavors) and a handful of nuts and/or simple jerky (look for low-sodium, sugar-free options; grass fed or grass finished is ideal). “Top it off with a large bottle of water, a book, and a hot Epsom salt bath,” says Javitch, to feel fully nourished.

20) What are the most popular drugstore purchases?

About 74 percent of Walgreens business comes from pharmacy sales, per the 2019 Annual Report. As for what performs best within Manhattan stores, the list of best-selling items (per a CVS spokesperson) includes Crest 3D Whitestrips, Neutrogena makeup remover wipes, Dove deodorant (in “Cool Essentials”), Gillette Fusion5 razor cartridges, and TRESemmé hair spray. Vitamins are also popular, with two sleep aids (CVS brand Melatonin and Olly “Blackberry Zen” Sleep Vitamin), two probiotics (Culturelle Digestive Health Capsules, Align), and one beauty supplement (NeoCell Super Collagen and C). The Manhattanite’s drugstore bottled water of choice is Essentia Ionized Alkaline Water, and, to go in that water, another top performer on the list is Emergen-C Vitamin C (the Pink Lemonade flavor, of course). —Additional reporting by Hilary Reid

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Everything to Know About Drugstores, According to Experts