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What is pharmaceutical primary, secondary & tertiary packaging?

Gianni Linssen
Written by
Gianni Linssen
/ Published on
June 6, 2023
pharmaceutical primary packaging

To ensure the safe storage and transportation of pharmaceuticals, proper packaging is crucial. It is essential to tailor the packaging to different products' specific requirements. Certain pharmaceuticals necessitate packaging with extensive information, while others must be designed to be child resistant. Depending on the situation, pharmaceutical primary packaging may be adequate, while in other instances, tertiary packaging becomes necessary. The primary aim of pharmaceutical packaging was, and still is, to protect the product from environmental factors, ensuring its stability throughout its shelf life. In this blog post, we will explain the differences between pharmaceutical primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging, and provide your business with guidance on achieving an efficient packaging solution.

Pharmaceutical primary packaging

Pharmaceutical primary packaging is the first layer of packaging that is directly attached to a product. When unboxing the pharmaceuticals, it is the last layer that needs to be removed to be able to use the product. Its essence is to preserve the right condition of the product, but also for user-friendliness and an attractive appearance. Additionally, as the pharmaceutical industry is a fast-changing sector, the packaging will have to change accordingly. The choice of material for primary packaging is a science itself. It demands a thorough understanding of the drug’s chemical composition and its interactions with various materials. This means that manufacturers must strike a balance between functionality and aesthetics. The choice of material will also influence the machinery selection, which can range from blister packaging machines to vial filling machines, depending on the selected primary packaging material.

Find the right machinery for pharma primary packaging

Relevant machinery is crucial to manufacture appropriate packaging, both when it comes to sustainable production and appearance. Blister packaging machines come in various shapes and size, from manual to fully automated. They allow for numerous graphical designs, depending on the needs and wants of the customer. Examples of pharmaceutical primary packaging are:

  • PVC blister packaging
  • PVDC coated blister packaging
  • ACLAR® blister packaging
  • Aluminum-aluminum blister packaging
  • Cold form foil blister packaging
  • High-barrier blister packaging
  • Child-resistant blister packaging
  • Senior-friendly blister packaging
  • Unit-dose blister packaging
  • Multi-dose blister packaging

The right choice of machinery, plays a crucial role in the design of primary packaging. For example, the use of child-resistant designs and senior-friendly packaging can make a significant difference in a product’s acceptance and safe usage in the market. Moreover, the design should also consider ease of use, including elements such as easy-opening features and clear marking of dosages, especially in the case of unit-dose and multi-dose blister packaging.


Secondary packaging in pharmaceuticals

Secondary packaging in pharmaceuticals, is the part that encloses both the medicine and the box containing the product. Its purpose is to provide additional protection, increase convenience and usability, but also serves to inform the client regarding the drug’s composition, therapeutic indications, dosage regimen, potential side effects and storage conditions. In addition, it also acts as a canvas for a product’s branding. The colors, typography, logos, and other design elements contribute to the product’s brand recognition and market appeal. Therefore, careful design of secondary packaging can significantly enhance product differentiation and brand loyalty in a highly competitive market. Examples of pharmaceutical secondary packaging would be blister cards, blister wallets and folding cartons.

Tertiary packaging in pharmaceutical industry

Last comes tertiary packaging in the pharmaceutical industry, which is chiefly used for shipping and transportation purposes. Often, this tertiary packaging is not seen by the end-user, as the material is often removed by retailers before selling it. Common types of tertiary packaging in pharmaceutical industry are cardboard boxes, pallets and shrink film. It needs to be robust enough to withstand environmental stressors during transit, such as temperature fluctuations, humidity, and physical shocks. Even though it does not interact directly with the product, its importance in maintaining the overall product integrity during the logistics process is paramount.

The evolution of pharmaceutical packaging

Over the years, pharmaceutical packaging has evolved from simple containers to more complex packaging forms such as blisters, ampoules, catering to various dosage forms including solids, liquids, or gases. Today, the industry is moving towards ‘smart’ packaging, which not only enhances patient compliance, but also aids in monitoring patient adherence towards drug regimes. Near Field Communication (NFC), 2D barcodes and tamper-evident features are a great example of the growing technology. It provides information to both healthcare providers and patients about the medication’s usage and its remaining doses, enhancing product safety and traceability. Also, the advent of automation has supported the evolution of pharmaceutical packaging. Automated packaging lines increase efficiency, minimize human error and ensure consistent quality of packaging. The COVID-19 pandemic stimulated this process while adhering to social distancing guidelines and maintaining production levels.

The future of pharmaceutical primary, secondary & tertiary packaging

The pharmaceutical packaging sector will continue to evolve with technological advancements and changing market needs. One of the main drivers is sustainability, as biodegradable and recyclable packaging materials are being explored increasingly. Additionally, smart packaging – technologies like NFC and RFID – is set to redefine patient interaction with packaging. These technologies can provide reminders for medication, verify product authenticity, and even enable remote monitoring of patient compliance.

Guide towards the right packaging solution

Choosing the right pharmaceutical primary, secondary and tertiary packaging solution is crucial for businesses. Each layer plays a unique role in protecting the product, providing information, ensuring compliance, aiding in logistics, and even enhancing the product's market appeal. With the increasing emphasis on patient-centricity, compliance, sustainability, and digitalization, the future of pharmaceutical packaging looks promising and exciting. There are a few guidelines that will help you find the right packaging solution.

  • Understanding your product and acknowledge its specific requirements, which is important to determine the type of packaging material and design.
  • Prioritize sustainable packaging solutions. This will not only improve the company’s ecological footprint, but also improve brand reputation.
  • Familiarize yourself with the current pharmaceutical guidelines. These regulations relate to labeling, product safety and transportation matters.
  • Take your time during the testing and prototyping phase. Only then, you will be able to identify the weaknesses and strengths.
  • Choose a reliable experience pharmaceutical primary and secondary packaging supplier who can meet your specific needs and wants.
  • Stay updated with pharma trends.

By following these guides, you will be equipped to make informed decisions and find the right pharmaceutical primary, secondary and tertiary packaging.

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