Medicine or Poison: What’s Really In the Top-Selling OTC Meds?

Cough medicine

The United States leads the world in pharmaceutical sales—an industry estimated at more than $300 billion annually. So it’s no wonder we’ve come to rely on the convenience of over-the-counter medications much in the same way we rely on fast processed food. While some items can offer us relief from mild aches, pains, colds and heartburn, when you find out what’s in those top-selling meds, you may actually feel a whole lot worse. Take a look at the toxic list of ingredients in the most common home care pharmaceuticals and check out our suggestions for natural alternatives.

Tylenol: A go-to for headache, fever or muscle pain relief, Tylenol and other acetaminophen products seem harmless enough, but have a look at what else is in the 500mg caplets: Carnauba wax, castor oil, corn starch, FD&C Red #40 aluminum lake, hypromellose, magnesium stearate, polyethylene glycol, powdered cellulose, pregelatinized starch, propylene glycol, shellac, sodium starch glycolate, titanium dioxide. Food colorings and propylene glycol have been linked to cancer as has titanium dioxide.

What to do instead: For muscle pain relief, try a topical ointment such as arnica gel. Also sip ginger tea, and extracts of feverfew and white willow bark work especially well for headaches. Pain can also be soothed through certain acupressure points and a dab of peppermint or lavender essential oil.

Mucinex: This decongestant has become hugely popular in recent years as its active ingredient, Guaifenesin helps to loosen and remove mucous and phlegm. But it also includes: carbomer 934P as NF; FD&C blue #1 aluminum lake; hypromellose, USP; magnesium stearate, NF; microcrystalline cellulose, NF; sodium starch glycolate, NF. Magnesium stearate (also stearic acid) has been linked with inhibiting T-cell immune responses and may decrease cardiac cell function, leading to cell death.

And Robitussin Peak Cold Maximum Strength Cough and Chest Congestion is no better when it comes to congestion relief: Dextromethorphan, Guaifenesin, anhydrous citric acid, artificial & natural flavors, carboxymethylcellulose sodium, D&C red no. 33, FD&C red no. 40, glycerin, high fructose corn syrup, menthol, microcrystalline cellulose, polyethylene glycol, povidone, propylene glycol, purified water, saccharin sodium, sodium benzoate, sorbitol solution, xanthan gum. No one likes a sleepless night coughing and wheezing. But artificial coloring and flavors along with toxins including povidone and propylene glycol hold the potential for far worse problems down the road.

What to do instead: For congestion/cough, a saltwater flush with a neti pot can help remove mucous and open nasal passages. Steaming with herbs such as eucalyptus and lavender can help as well, and drinking herbal teas (or tinctures) including slippery elm, rooibos, elderberry and licorice may help reduce phlegm and ease congestion.  

Prilosec OTC: Heartburn affects millions every year (hello, Standard American Diet). And while quick relief may come from the number one selling heartburn pill, have a look at the unappetizing and largely toxic ingredients: omeprazole magnesium, glyceryl monostearate, hydroxypropyl cellulose, hypromellose, magnesium stearate, methacrylic acid copolymer C, polysorbate, sugar spheres, talc, and triethyl citrate, citric acid, crospovidone, dextrose, hydroxypropyl cellulose, iron oxide and xantham gum.

And like heartburn, millions are affected by constipation, making Ex-Lax Extra Strength pills a top seller. But can these toxic ingredients really make you ‘regular’?: Sennosides, acacia, alginic acid, calcium phosphate, carnauba wax, cellulose, FD&C blue No.1, magnesium stearate, polyvinylpyrrolidone, silicon dioxide, sodium benzoate, sodium lauryl sulfate, starch, stearic acid, sucrose, talc, titanium dioxide.

What to do instead: Aside from changing your diet to reduce or eliminate excessively processed foods and other sources of indigestion, for occasional heartburn or acid reflux, sip mint, licorice or ginger tea, or try an extract. For constipation, try upping your fiber intake or using a natural senna product like Traditional Medicinals Smooth Move tea.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger


Image: Sterlic

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.