Healthcare products like prescription medications, pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals are generally made up of a large list of ingredients. These ingredients can be broken down into two different groups: active ingredients and inactive ingredients. Active ingredients are those that exert a pharmaceutical or medical effect on a product. Inactive ingredients are used to help boost a products’ properties.
Inactive ingredients are not as passive as their name suggests. Contrary to popular belief, inactive ingredients can actually play a significant role in the overall performance of a product.
For example, Biofreeze, a popular topical pain relief cream uses Arnica as an inactive ingredient. Arnica is a herbaceous plant that has been shown to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving properties in many lab and animal studies . So despite the fact that Arnica is used as an inactive ingredient in Biofreeze, it is still able to pass along some of these benefits to enhance the efficacy of Biofreeze. Penetrex, another pain relief cream also uses Arnica as an inactive ingredient, with similar results.
Although they’re not the main focal point of a product, inactive ingredients can still play an outsized role in the functionality of a product itself.
Can an inactive ingredient make claims or have benefits?
The answer to this question depends on the exact formulation of a product and the amount of an inactive ingredient found within it. Inactive ingredients cannot make any specific health claims but their properties such as anti-inflammation, antioxidant or antimicrobial can be expanded to the underlying product itself thereby making it more effective in its overall actions.
Inactive ingredients that are herbal or plant-based
Medicine is an ancient art form that dates back centuries. Before the creation of conventional science-based medications, many societies turned to plants, flowers, trees and herbal substances found in their surrounding environment to successfully treat minor illnesses and ailments. Since then we’ve come a long way and modern medicine has cured millions of people from life-threatening, debilitating or deadly conditions. But the healing properties of many plant species has not gone away.
Natural products are surprisingly effective as pain relievers and in some cases, they’re even more effective than conventional drugs. Echinacea, St. Johns Wort, and Ginkgo biloba are just a handful of well-known plants or flowers that were discovered thousands of years ago but are still in mainstream use today.
It’s not unusual to find these plant-based ingredients in many healthcare products and their use has been backed by a handful of studies with regards to their effectiveness in the management of conditions like colds, flus, or depression. Yet even though they’re widely used, they still have not been rigorously studied or lab-tested and as such they are not FDA approved drugs. This does not mean that they work any less effectively but the more likely explanation is that the time, investment and resources have yet to be spent on them to ensure they meet a highly selective criteria.
Ingredients like Wogonin fall under this same category. Wogonin is a natural compound found in the root of the Skullcap Baicalensis plant and is thought to be a safe and highly effective natural anti-inflammatory. Studies have highlighted its effectiveness but at present it is not currently approved by the FDA. As an inactive ingredient however, Wogonin may still exert its potent anti-inflammatory effects when included as part of a pain relief product.
In any product, both the active and inactive ingredients matter. Either conventional, manufactured or herbal, inactive ingredients have a role to play in making any product more effective at carrying out its functions.
1) Univesity of California. Berkeley Wellness. Arnica for Muscle and Joint Pain?