How to Find the Detergents, Allergens, and Other Inert Ingredients in Medications

Most medications are made up of the active ingredient — the medicine — and inert ingredients, such as dyes to help identify the medication.

Assorted Medications

Photo by NIAID – Assorted Medications, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62117217

Medications can contain Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and other detergents. They can also contain other substances people are frequently allergic to, like dyes. Talc is another frequent ingredient, despite credible concerns and ongoing questions about its possible link to certain cancers. Yet other ingredients can have side effects, for example, sugar alcohols (sugar substitutes) like sorbitol can cause dizziness if taken regularly.

As this news story from CBS New York about inert ingredients and medications reports: “Millions of people think they’re allergic to life-saving medications like penicillin, but a recent study found that 90 percent of those folks … may be reacting [instead] to some of the inactive ingredients in the pills.”

The story points out the difficulties of finding the inert ingredients list because there are no labeling laws like there are for foods. It is currently far easier to find the list of ingredients in a box of breakfast cereal than it is for medications people take daily.

I recently needed to find a generic version of a medication I was using, and was frustrated by how difficult it was to find the inert ingredients. I eventually found a resource online through the NIH that seems to be about the best resource for identifying inert ingredients, Daily Med. The website contains over 100,000 drug listings.

You can search through its database of medications, and the site will display a list that includes the name of the drug, the manufacturer or packager, and the NDC code for the drug. The links go to pages that include a wealth of information: contraindications, indications of use, drug interactions, and much more, including — always at the very bottom — a link to the Ingredients and Appearance, and often a link to an image of the medication’s label.

Many drugs have different inert ingredients from one generic to the next, and from one dosage from the same manufacturer to the next, so to look up the exact drug to find its inert ingredients, scroll through the dosages on the Ingredients page to find the exact one you are using.

For SolveEczema.org users, being able to ensure medications taken daily are detergent-free can be a real challenge. I think it’s very important that site users prioritize the medications they need and that their doctors recommend, and NOT stop anything just because it has detergents in it, rather, discuss the situation with your MD before making changes. Having information means it might be possible to find non-detergent alternatives through the Daily Med site, and your doctor or pharmacy may be able to specify the one with the most tolerable inert ingredients or even prescribe a compounded version.

The CBS New York story suggests people may need to use a compounding pharmacy if they need medications without some of the inert ingredients. Which is, of course, it’s own endeavor, to find an affordable compounding pharmacy with a good track record for safety. Compounded medications tend to be very costly, and insurance may balk at paying.

There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of awareness about the issue of allergy and sensitivity to the inert ingredients in medications yet. At least the NIH Daily Med site has been very helpful to determine which versions of medications don’t contain SLS.

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