Packaging Advice

The evolution of pharmaceutical packaging: From basic protection to innovative solutions

7 mins

Over the years, the pharmaceutical industry has made remarkable advancements in drug development and medical treatments. Amongst these breakthroughs and revolutionary treatments that are available today, one crucial aspect often remains overlooked. That is, of course, packaging.

Since its origins of basic protection, pharmaceutical packaging has evolved immensely alongside treatments and medicines. Today, pharmaceutical packaging stands as a testament to innovation and progress in the medical sector.

In this blog, we take a look at the role of pharmaceutical packaging over the years and how it’s embraced cutting-edge solutions to meet today’s challenges.

1. The early years of basic pharmaceutical protection

During the early years of pharmaceuticals, the primary goal of packaging was to provide fundamental protection for drugs. Glass bottles and vials emerged as the standard containers for storing medications, serving as a barrier against contamination, light, and moisture. The utilisation of glass containers played a critical role in maintaining the stability and integrity of drugs, shielding them from external elements that could otherwise compromise their effectiveness.

While glass bottles and vials offered a reliable means of protection, they were not without their limitations, especially without secondary packaging. The fragile nature of glass made these containers susceptible to breakage, posing potential risks to both patients and healthcare providers. Additionally, glass containers presented challenges in accurately measuring precise doses, often requiring the use of additional tools or devices.

These limitations prompted the industry to seek innovative solutions to address these shortcomings and enhance the functionality of pharmaceutical packaging. But before we explore how the packaging industry evolved to support medical products effectively, let’s take a look at how pharmaceutical packaging used to be in a little more detail.

Ancient times

In ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the history of pharmaceutical packaging dates back to the use of natural and locally available materials. Medicines were often stored in containers made of clay pots, animal bladders, and glass bottles. Clay pots provided a reliable option for storage due to their ability to shield medicines from environmental factors such as moisture and even pests. Animal bladders were utilised as pouches for holding liquid medications, as they were sturdy and prevented evaporation or contamination. Glass bottles, though relatively more advanced, were employed by societies like Rome. The non-reactive nature of glass preserved the medicinal properties of the contents. These early containers were often sealed with corks or other natural stoppers to maintain the integrity of the medicines.

Middle ages

During the Middle Ages, the practice of using various natural materials for pharmaceutical packaging continued, but with an emphasis on portability and preservation. Apothecaries and herbalists utilised fabric pouches made from materials like linen or silk to store medicinal herbs and substances. These pouches were convenient for carrying and offered protection against light and moisture. The pouches were sealed using wax, strings, or elaborate knots to ensure the safety of the contents. Animal skins, such as parchment or leather, were also used as packaging materials during this period. These skins were durable and provided an additional layer of protection for medicines.

Industrial revolution

The Industrial Revolution (during both the 18th and 19th centuries) marked a significant shift in pharmaceutical packaging through the adoption of mass production techniques. This era saw the manufacturing of standardised glass bottles and vials, replacing hand-blown glass containers. The standardisation ensured consistency in shape and size, making it easier to fill, store, and transport medicines. Glass bottles were sealed primarily with corks, chosen for their ability to create a secure barrier against air and moisture, increasing the stability and shelf life of pharmaceutical products. This period's advancements paved the way for modern pharmaceutical packaging methods and set the stage for further innovations in the industry.

2. How the pharmaceutical industry overcame limitations

Recognising the limitations of traditional glass bottles and vials, the pharmaceutical packaging industry knew that they must take action and introduce solutions that would cause the industry to evolve. Some of the earlier advancements in pharmaceutical packaging included:

  • The introduction of plastic packaging - To mitigate the risks associated with breakage, plastic packaging materials such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) gained popularity. Plastic containers offered improved durability, reducing the likelihood of accidental breakage during storage, transportation, and handling. This shift to plastic also brought about advantages in terms of lighter weight, cost-effectiveness, and increased flexibility in design.
  • Unit-dose packaging - To address the challenge of accurately measuring precise doses, unit-dose packaging was introduced. This innovative solution involved individually packaging each dose of medication in pre-measured, sealed compartments. Unit-dose packaging not only improved accuracy in dosage administration but also facilitated portability and ease of use for patients, particularly for those with complex medication regimens.
  • Blister packs - Blister packs emerged as a game-changer in pharmaceutical packaging. These multi-dose packaging systems featured individual cavities or "blisters" that contained one dose of medication, sealed with a protective cover. Blister packs offered numerous advantages, including enhanced medication visibility, extended shelf life, improved protection against moisture and light, and the ability to incorporate patient information and instructions directly on the packaging.
  • Child-resistant packaging - Child-resistant packaging was a significant milestone in pharmaceutical packaging. Innovative designs, such as push-and-turn caps, squeeze-and-turn closures, and blister packs with child-resistant latches, were developed to prevent accidental ingestion by children. These child-resistant packaging solutions added an extra layer of safety, reducing the risk of paediatric poisoning and ensuring peace of mind for guardians and caregivers.

3. The latest innovations in pharmaceutical packaging

In recent years, the pharmaceutical packaging industry has continued to push the boundaries of innovation, introducing new technologies and materials to address evolving needs and challenges. Here are some of the latest advancements in pharmaceutical packaging:

  • Smart packaging - The integration of technology and pharmaceutical packaging has led to the development of smart packaging solutions. These packages incorporate sensors, indicators, or electronic components that can monitor various parameters such as temperature, humidity, and light exposure. Smart packaging provides real-time data on the storage conditions of medications, ensuring their integrity and effectiveness. It also enables better inventory management and enhances patient safety by alerting users to expired or compromised drugs.
  • Tamper-evident packaging - To combat the issue of drug counterfeiting and tampering, tamper-evident packaging has become increasingly important. Innovative solutions include tamper-evident seals, labels, or closures that provide visible evidence if the package has been compromised. These features help maintain the authenticity and safety of pharmaceutical products, protecting patients from potential harm and ensuring trust in the supply chain.
  • Sustainable packaging - With increasing environmental concerns, the pharmaceutical industry has been actively exploring sustainable packaging solutions. Biodegradable and recyclable materials, such as plant-based plastics and paper-based packaging, are being utilised to reduce the environmental impact of pharmaceutical packaging. Additionally, companies are optimising packaging designs to minimise waste and promote eco-friendly practices throughout the supply chain.
  • Interactive pharmaceutical packaging - Interactive packaging engages patients and healthcare professionals by providing additional information and support. QR codes, augmented reality (AR), and near-field communication (NFC) technology are being integrated into packaging to provide access to digital content, including dosage instructions, educational materials, and patient support programs. This interactive packaging fosters better medication adherence, empowers patients with knowledge, and enhances the overall healthcare experience.

Pharmaceutical packaging from the experts

Pharmaceutical packaging has come a long way from its early days of basic protection. It has evolved into a critical component of the healthcare industry, embracing cutting-edge solutions to meet the challenges of the modern world.

At Swiftpak, we are continuously pushing the boundaries in pharmaceutical packaging. With over 45 years’ experience, we have the knowledge and experience needed to recommend the very best solution for your product and business needs. So why not get in touch with our expert team today and find out how your packaging could be revolutionised.