the drugstore project

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).