Every pharmacy and big box store seems to boast their own unique line of generic over-the-counter drugs and remedies these days. It’s impossible to miss these products since they’re often placed right next to their big brand name brothers on store shelves.

But are these generic drugs worth it?

generic drugs

Sure, the packaging looks similar, the ingredients look consistent, and the price looks good — but how much do you really save? And do these generic drugs and over-the-counter remedies work as well as their cheaper counterparts?

Being a curious creature with a bad headache, a slight cough, and a touch of sea sickness-induced nausea (yeah, don’t go boating in October without a proper hat), I decided to take a bunch of commonly used brand name and generic remedies for a spin. Yes, this is a human guinea pig and price check experiment! Cough. Wheeze. Spew.

Price Check Rules

It never fails. Whenever I do a price check post (See Is Costco really worth it?) I get a rash of email from around the globe (that’s planet Earth, people) asking me to compare costs at some local store near whoknowswhere. The problem is: I don’t live near whoknowswhere! So I want YOU to take my simple price check experiment rules and apply them to where YOU live. It’s like teaching the internets to fish, but far less smelly.

OK, so the rules for buying generic over-the-counter drugs and remedies are simple — follow them and you can’t (cough) go wrong.

THE ONE RULE: Always compare brand name and generic labels to make sure you’re getting an equivalent product. Sooo…

  • Check dosage.
  • Compare active medicinal ingredients.
  • Compare inactive ingredients (sugar, starch, etc.).
  • Verify product volumes, weights, or sizes are equivalent.
  • Check Cost (sometimes the brand is cheaper on sale).
  • Size up if the larger volume is a better value.
  • Check expiry dates.

Easy peasy!

Are generic drugs the same as brand name drugs?

I checked in with the big federal health authorities in Canada and the United States for their take on generic over-the-counter drugs, medications, and remedies. Turns out that generic drugs not only have to be approved for use in both countries, but they must be exactly the same as the brand name in terms of active ingredients, strength, dosage form, route of administration, and labeling.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website says:

[The] FDA firmly believes that generic drug products that have gone through the approval process can be used with the full expectation that consumers will receive the same benefits from generics as they do from brand name equivalents.

In Canada, non-medicinal ingredients in generic products can be different from those in the original brand. The Health Canada website says:

Normally, when manufacturers change the non-medicinal ingredients or the manufacturing conditions, they have to provide studies to prove that the effectiveness of the drug has not changed.

So given that generic medications must be medicinally equivalent to the better known brand name product, my little experiment is sticking to price, sight, and taste comparisons.

Sample Shopping List

There’s must be a kagillion different types of generic drug brands available on the market today. Walmart, CVS, Shoppers Drug Mart, London Drugs, and Loblaws Superstore are just a few big players who offer discount generic brands in store. To find the right price for your pocketbook, I encourage you to make a shopping list and do a price check experiment at your favorite shop since prices can vary widely.

Download my free Printable Grocery Shopping List for some pointers.

Here’s my over-the-counter generic drug and remedy list:

generic drugs compare

For my experiment I visited a Canadian chain called Superstore. Your local generic prices may be cheaper. Lucky you. 🙂

And my price check results for the whole sickly lot:

generic drugs savings

Bottom Line: Get your sick on and cure the common cold for 22% less by switching your entire medicine cabinet to generic over-the-counter drugs.

But how did the generic products compare to the big brand name superstars? I tasted, sampled, guzzled, dripped, and stuck every product on my list. Some generics are better deals than others.

1. Cough Syrup: Buckley’s Cough Mixture

I asked the fine people on the Squawkfox Facebook Page which generic product packed the biggest savings. No one guessed that generic brand Buckley’s would cough up the best bargain.

buckleys cough mixture

Bottom Line: It tastes awful, and it works for 31% less when you switch to generic Buckley’s cough syrup.

While both brands tasted terrible, the consistency and color were a little different. Buckley’s was milky, and the generic was a tad bit thicker, but neither tasted sweeter. Both products contain the same active and inactive ingredients.

Switch Tip: Because taste plays a major role for kids taking their cough medicine, it’s a good idea to compare the sweetness of each brand before making the switch.

2. Eye Drops: Visine

What to see some real savings?


Bottom Line: You’ll see clearly now for an eye popping 24% less with generic brand Visine eyedrops. Since both products contain the active ingredient tetrahydrozoline hydrochloride (0.5mg/mL), you’ll save a spectacular $1.17 per bottle by passing on the popular peeper brand.

Both products looked exactly the same to me.

3. Liquid Ibuprofen: Advil

Many people on the Squawkfox Facebook Page guessed that ibuprofen would be the best generic bargain. They guessed wrong, but these generic pain-killing pills do bring home stellar savings.

advil generic  drugs

Bottom Line: Mend that migraine and save a mind-numbing $2.97 (that’s 23%) on a 72 tablet bottle of generic liquid ibuprofen.

The only time I’ve ever bought brand name Advil was for this article. Never again. Both products offer 200mg of ibuprofen per tablet.

4. Anti-Nauseant: Gravol

A good dose of dimenhydrinate — the active ingredient in Gravol — might right bad cases of motion sickness, nausea, and vomiting. But are you paying too much for relief?


Bottom Line: Stop the spinning sensations for $1.30 (or 21%) less with 30 tablets of generic Gravol.

Tough pill to swallow? Generic dimenhydrinate tablets don’t come with Gravol’s trademarked ‘FilmKote’ coating, so those who prefer an easy-to-swallow tablet may benefit from buying the Gravol brand for $1.30 more.

5. Clear Bandages: Band-Aid

Runners, walkers, gardeners, clumsy cooks, and parents always need a first aid kit stocked with multiple sizes of bandages.

band aid

Bottom Line: Skinned knees and other boos-boos are covered for 18% less with a box of generic Band-Aid bandages.

The Band-Aid brand bandage boasts a tapered shape and a little more gauze. The generic bandage is a little stickier.

6. Stomach Relief: Pepto-Bismol

Got a little gut gurgle? Had too much frugal chicken and not enough honest exercise? A brighter pink potion is what the generic Pepto-Bismol buys you. A blind taste test (with my somewhat scientific family) reveals that both pink liquids taste the same (to us).

pepto bismol generic drugs

Bottom Line: Settle your upset stomach with a little 12% savings by guzzling from a 230mL bottle of generic Pepto-Bismol. Both products contain the active ingredient bismuth subsalicylate (17.6 mg/mL) to ease gut rot.

Switch Tip: Consider sizing up to the 480mL bottle of generic Pepto-Bismol to save even more moolah — 24% to be exact.

pepto bismol generic

Buying in bulk can often save you money if it’s a product you need and use often.

So where am I going with this?

You don’t need to spend big bucks on brand name over-the-counter medications and remedies to get healthy and headache-free. Making the switch to generic drugs could save you up to 30% — that’s $360 per year for a family that spends $1,200 annually.

For more easy ways to save money, check out 50 Ways to Save $1,000 a Year.

Your Turn: What generic remedies do you buy? What brand name products are worth the additional dollars?