Just like food and personal care products, medicine might be on the verge of becoming more natural. Next-gen pharmaceutical brands like Genexa are officially making clean meds *A Thing.*
But how exactly are they different from the over-the-counter (OTC) drugs you’ve taken in the past, and are the things that set them apart really worth it? Here’s what to know before buying.
It’s definitely not an official term. But y’know, “clean,” is generally marketing code for “better for you.”
Like, clean food is thought to be minimally processed and free of things like synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, or artificial ingredients or preservatives like dyes or butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).
It’s kinda sorta the same with clean medicine. Genexa, one of the first brands to market so-called clean OTC medications, suggests that clean means free of artificial dyes, flavors, and preservatives; artificial inactive ingredients like propylene glycol or artificial sorbitol (reminder: natural sorbitol is found in a variety of fruits); and common allergens like gluten and lactose. They’re also organic, non-GMO, and vegan.
So what’s actually in clean meds then? Many of Genexa’s meds contain identical active ingredients as their conventional counterparts — think acetaminophen, the same pain reliever used in Tylenol, or calcium carbonate, the same stomach soother as Tums.
Though in some cases, a clean med might contain more holistic remedies or natural ingredients.
Much of the real difference is in the inactive ingredients. When it comes to flavors, colors, or fillers, Genexa sticks with plant-derived ingredients like blueberries, beetroot extract, honey, or rice bran extract.
It’s important to keep in mind that, again, “clean” is simply a marketing term. And in the case of clean meds, it’s really only been defined by one brand so far.
For now, there’s no governing body or certifying agency spelling out what makes a medication count as “clean” or whether a “clean” med is actually better for you.
Good question. If clean meds are supposed to be a better-for-you alternative, does that make the ingredients in conventional drugs, well, bad?
The vast majority of medications contain inactive ingredients, including fillers, dyes, parabens, phthalates, gluten, lactose, or talc. Some of these ingredients don’t have the best track record when they’re used in large quantities — for example, parabens are potential endocrine disruptors.
But most of the research has looked at these ingredients in the context of personal care products or food. There’s not much evidence that the tiny amounts used in medications are harmful. Especially if you’re only taking something once in a while.
That’s generally true even if you’re really sensitive to ingredients like, say, lactose. “The small amount used as an inactive ingredient generally doesn’t cause GI upset,” explains clinical pharmacist and Greatist medical advisor Rebecca Barnhart, PharmD, BCPP.
And these kinds of inactive ingredients play an important role. “They’re put in because the amount of active ingredient [in a drug] is so small that some kind of binder or filler is usually needed to make it into an ingestible form,” Barnhart says.
The inactive ingredients can also help make a med look or taste better. Even conventional medications contain active ingredients that are often derived from plants, which can taste bitter.
“To get them more palatable, manufacturers flavor them with sugar,” Barnhart says. They might also add dyes or other substances to make the meds look more appealing. “If the med looks like a black tarry substance, ingredients might be added to make it more presentable,” she says.
They can play a safety role too. Different colors and appearances can make it easier to tell different meds apart, Barnart notes.
If a person needs multiple pills a day and they were all, like, small and white, it might be harder to keep track of what they’re actually taking (and if they’ve gotten the correct med from the pharmacy).
All that said, a small number of people may experience adverse effects from commonly used inactive ingredients. People with mast cell disease — a disorder marked by chronic inflammation — often experience allergy-like reactions to fillers. Think hives, rashes, and skin flushing.
Many of Genexa’s clean offerings are made with the same active ingredients as what you’d find in conventional OTC meds like Tylenol or Tums. So the goal is for you to get the same relief or results — just without any of the artificial inactive ingredients.
And experts like Barnhart see products like Genexa’s as having potential. “If the dose and delivery mechanism is the same, we could probably assume that it’s going to be a similar reaction,” she says.
On the other hand, if a clean med has a different amount of active ingredient or comes in a different form than its conventional counterpart (like a clean liquid versus a conventional pill), the two might not work exactly the same, she explains.
That’s the case for clean meds made with conventional active ingredients, at least. Genexa also has products that rely on homeopathic ingredients, like a melatonin-free sleep-aid made with alfalfa, oat, and chamomile.
Since homeopathy is a completely different form of treatment — with very little evidence that it can actually treat any disease or condition — pitting a clean homeopathic remedy against a standard OTC drug is like comparing apples and oranges. You can’t expect to get the same results.
“Homeopathic remedies aren’t held to the same standards as FDA-approved drugs,” says Barnhart, who compares the remedies to recreational marijuana. (Genexa notes on its homeopathic product pages that the products haven’t been approved by the FDA.)
“There’s a lack of regulation to meet a certain standard. So I’d view these [closer to] supplements instead of as medications.”
Overall, there’s not a lot of high-quality data to support homeopathic treatments over placebos — and as with all supplements and alternative remedies, it’s important to talk with your doctor before you start taking them.
Just because something’s natural doesn’t automatically make it healthy. And if you’re taking other meds, it’s possible that a supplement ingredient could trigger a harmful interaction, Barnhart notes.
Clean medications made with the same active ingredients as their conventional counterparts might be a healthier alternative. But unless you have a condition that makes it harder for your body to tolerate certain inactive ingredients, the difference is pretty minimal.
That said, “they can be a good alternative if you’re trying to avoid unnecessary additives,” Barnhart says. Which is a totally legit reason to seek a clean med out, if you want to give one a try.
Just make sure you’re still looking at what you’re buying and not assuming a product is right for you simply because it bills itself as clean. “I’d still want to learn about the inactive ingredients, where they were sourced, and whether they were another potential allergen,” says Barnhart.
As for clean homeopathic meds? These aren’t backed by regulatory bodies like the FDA, and there’s much less evidence for their efficacy. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to steer clear, but you should definitely do your research and talk with your doctor before taking one.
It’s up to you to find the OTC meds that work best for you. If you’re interested in giving products like Genexa a try, you can find their medicines online and in stores.