Family health

A new parents' guide to the pharmacy aisle

7 tips and tricks that’ll save you time and money when shopping for kids’ stuff at the drugstore.

A new parents' guide to the pharmacy aisle

Illustration: Ryan Snook

Browsing the pharmacy aisle can make a parent’s head spin. The multitude of options for things like pain relief, sunscreen and first aid is overwhelming, and it can be hard to know you’re purchasing the best thing for you kid—and not buying something you don’t need. Keep these tips in mind the next time you’re shopping.

1. Don't be afraid of store brands

Well-known brands will catch your eye, but store-brand versions of medications like Tylenol and Advil have the same active ingredient (acetaminophen and ibuprofen, respectively) and usually cost anywhere from $2 to $4 less. “In Canada, we have good quality control. They are similar products and they’re going to have similar efficacy,” says Grant Anderson, a pharmacist in Rocky Mountain House, Alta. Anderson says he often recommends the generic option to parents in his store. “The only thing that might be different is the filler or how they’re made.”

2. The right formulation matters...

Buying different versions of medications for every member of the family will clutter up your medicine cabinet, but it’s essential for things like pain and fever meds, allergy treatments and anti-nauseants, since these are all formulated for kids’ ages and weights, says Calgary paediatrician Peter Nieman. The same goes for vitamins—it’s important to buy the ones marked “children’s.”

3. ...Except when it doesn't

On the other hand, when it comes to sunscreen, it’s not essential that you opt for the one that says “kids” (a handy thing to know when the adult version is on sale and the kids’ version is regular price!). What’s more important to keep in mind when it comes to sunscreen shopping is that most dermatologists recommend that children wear mineral sunscreen, which uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to physically block the sun’s damaging rays, rather than a chemical sunblock, where chemicals are absorbed into the skin. Speak to your doctor before using any sunscreen on babies younger than six months.

4. Check expiry dates

Busy drugstores aren’t likely to have expired products on the shelf, but always check the date anyway. If you know you aren’t likely to use up a product quickly, look to see if another brand has a longer shelf life. This is especially true if the product is on sale, because it might be discounted to ensure it sells before it expires.

5. Leave some items on the shelf until you need them

Some products are best kept stocked at home at all times, but others should be purchased as needed. Keep acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen, a topical antibiotic like Polysporin, adhesive bandages and a thermometer on hand. But only pick up allergy meds and anti-nausea tablets when your kid needs them; otherwise, they might expire before you use them up.

6. Skip wound cleaners


You may recall your parents cleaning your cuts with hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol. But you’re actually better off simply rinsing the wound with water, then using mild soap to clean around the wound, if necessary. Follow up with a bandage.

7. Get advice about natural products

Get the OK from your kid’s doctor before buying “natural” products such as melatonin, probiotics and echinacea. (Nieman, for one, doesn’t discourage children from using them if the parent is administering them responsibly and believes they work.) Then, ensure the product doesn’t negatively interact with any other meds your child is taking. “People think these products are natural so therefore they’re safe, but they can still interact with prescription and over-the-counter medication,” says Anderson.

Don't buy these products, even if you see them at the pharmacy

Medicated teething gels: Benzocaine, the active ingredient in medicated oral pain-relief gels, can cause a rare but serious condition called methemoglobinemia in kids. Companies have started marketing benzocaine-free teething gels for babies, but they are sold next to adult versions that contain it, so be sure to buy the right one.

Cough and cold medicines: Health Canada says kids under six should not take over-the counter cough and cold medicines because they have not been shown effective and there is a risk of overdosing or double dosing on medications. For kids over the age of six, it’s important to read ingredient labels to make sure you are not double dosing. For example, do not give acetaminophen if you’re also giving a cough and cold medicine that contains acetaminophen.

Benadryl: Contrary to popular belief, Benadryl is not the best antihistamine for kids thanks to its potentially harmful side effects. You’re much better off choosing a non-drowsy option like Claritin or Allegra instead, says Calgary paediatrician Peter Nieman.

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