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Packaging expert Keith Barnes takes a look at the array of pharmaceutical packaging options currently on the market.


Pharmaceutical packaging is a highly complex area, as it often has to deal with life or death situations. It is divided into two primary categories, OTC (over the counter) products or prescription medicines or devices. In each case, the packaging is vigorously quality controlled and no mistakes are allowed.

Many packaging elements must be produced under strict “clean room” conditions at various levels. It should also be said that anti-counterfeiting elements are often used for product/consumer protection.

Currently, pharmaceutical packaging takes a number of forms, let’s take a look what’s currently on the market...

Bottles & jars

Glass, as an inert material, is widely used for liquids (linctuses, lotions, and prescription medicines) and creams (skin care, personal care, and prescription products). Tablets are also housed this way. Many products come in amber glass which protects the quality of the contents. Plain glass is also used, as well as blue, which is traditionally an indicator of poison products.

Plastics are often used for liquids (like mouth wash) and creams, using PET, PP or SAN, depending on the specific barrier properties needed. Powders are usually in plastic and there is a wide range of choices for jars, especially those that contain vitamins or alternative cures in tablet form.

Caps, Closures & Dispensers

Caps usually come in PP and normally offer tamper evidence features, child proof designs, or if plain, may be shrink sleeved after closing. Product safety is always the priority. Some caps may incorporate some sort of measure for controlled dosing. Where two elements of the formulation are required to be mixed at the time of use, a “destruction” membrane may feature in the cap and is activated when unscrewing.

Under the heading of closures, one can also include induction heat-sealed labels/covers, foil-only covers, and heat seal films.

Dispensers are available in many forms – sprays, pumps, nozzles, roll-ons, spatulas, droppers, triggers, and more. They are mostly moulded in PP and fitted on the container. Spoons and some spatulas are often packed loosely.

Blister Packs

Most tablets/pills are now packed this way with thermoformed bases created on lines, usually in PVC (as this has the widest temperature window for forming), but can be made of PP, PC, or foil. Specifications are for the base material and the lidding material (foil, PP) as specialized machinery is needed for the production filling process. Blisters are also being shaped to form a book-style printed folder.

Some products are packed into small containers and then into a pre-formed blister which in turn is sealed onto a printed backing card.


These are generally housed in cylindrical metal containers with a propellant and a plastic spray mechanism applied after filling under pressure. This allows the product to evacuate when the activator is pressed.

An alternative solution is the “airless” spray which does not require compression. Many global companies are producing these in plastic, usually HDPE, PP, or PET.


Many packs when filled will ultimately be placed into a carton, and there are numerous suppliers offering the service. Most pharmaceutical carton makers are specialists, as the printed component needs constant checking throughout the process to prevent “admix”. Each job may be “caged” for protection, quality, and usage analysis – all cartons and waste must be accountable. Cartons can be tuck-in, glued end, or of special “crashlock/handlock” construction. Windows can be incorporated. Many cartons may be sequentially numbered for traceability and accounting.

Cartons are usually printed on board although plastics can be used (PP, PVC, PET). Innovative cardboard engineering is often available. Anti-counterfeiting measures are in action for cartons and labels, often with a combination of covert or overt systems included as a safeguard for the end package. Some systems used are holograms, “void” if opened systems, colour changes, and heat changes, to name a few.

Labels & Labelling

Virtually every product will have a label somewhere and these are typically the permanent, self-adhesive variety that very rarely use plain paper. Plastic or paper can be used. Depending on the product’s production run size, the label will be applied either by machine or by hand for short runs. As with cartons, there must be no “admix” so most orders are passed through automatic readers to check the labels all match an agreed standard for copy and colour. Once more, all orders are caged and many may be sequentially numbered. Where labels are used as seals, a “void” print is used to show if the pack has been opened.

Innovative labels can be created with tear-off sections and non-stick areas or in the  form of label leaflets. A printed shrink sleeve may also be selected as a labelling method.

Injection moulding

These are used in specialist areas such as hyperdermics and inhalers. Rigid tubes are also produced for some products, e.g. vitamin C tablets. Various plastics are used and often “clean room” conditions are necessary to prevent bacterial contamination.

Flexible tubes

Theses can be formed by extruded plastics, multi-laminates,  or aluminium. Extruded plastic tubes are available globally and satisfy the needs of a simple product. The more complex formulation will need a multi-laminate approach to act as a barrier for the product, and can be up to 10 layers. Aluminium impact extruded tubes are still used as a high level barrier item. Most tube makers can supply all of these with closures featuring nozzles, spatulas, roller balls and flip tops.

Plastic films and bags

There are many variations in the construction of film products and additives or layers can be incorporated to prevent the ingress of water, oxygen, or bacteria. Some film are converted into bags for future use, e.g. blood transfusions. Most film converters are conversant with the barriers required.


As with blister packs there are specific needs and certainly most operating room packs are supplied in shaped, vacuum formed trays (normally PVC but can also be PP or PET) suitably barrier protected against any form of contamination. Specialist machines will pack such products under “clean room” conditions and/or subsequent attention may be given via gamma ray radiation, also on special premises.

Clam packs where the lid and base are preformed with a hinge are often used to contain simple packs when line speed is essential. Once filled they can be heat sealed or security sealed with a “void” label.

Aseptic Packaging

Special machinery under strict “clean room” conditions will form the plastic container, fill it, and seal the top. There are a few such companies around.

Ampoules and Vials

Typically single-use items, these normally glass tubes (though plastic versions are also available) are filled in maximum “clean room” sterile areas for products such as vaccines, eye drops, and specialist medicines. 


Many pharmaceutical products need printed literature in a pack to satisfy legal requirements and often for multi-lingual distribution. Strict control is needed to prevent “admix” and copy failure either by mistake or faulty print. Machinery to check printing against a known standard is available. Leaflets are usually printed on low weight paper to allow for many languages and easy automatic folding.

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  • Modified 19 Jan 2016
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