Why Do Prescription Pills Come in Orange Bottles?

Orange prescription bottles are standard in the U.S., and the color is more than a design choice. By filtering out harmful UV light, it helps keep pills—and patients—safe.
Pills come in orange containers for a clever reason.
Pills come in orange containers for a clever reason. / Tetra Images/Getty Images (bottles), Jon Mayer/Mental Floss (thought bubble)

No matter where you get your prescriptions filled, chances are they come in an orange bottle with a child-proof white cap. But where did this ubiquitous design come from, and why does it look like that?

The orange color of modern prescription bottles is actually designed to protect the pills inside from harmful ultraviolet rays. UV light from the sun and other sources can alter and degrade the chemicals in many medications, making them less effective or causing unwanted side effects. The color orange, meanwhile, is particularly good at blocking these rays as well as letting enough visible light through for the contents of the bottle to be seen through the plastic.

Some medications require even more protection. Pills like Truvada and Descovy (prescribed for HIV treatment and prevention) as well as any orally-dissolving tablets are especially sensitive to moisture; even exposure to the moisture in the air during the transfer process can make them less effective. So if you’re prescribed one of these, you’ll likely be given a bottle straight from the manufacturer. 

As for the cap, we can thank Dr. Henri Breault for that life-saving invention. As chief of pediatrics at the poison center of a Canadian hospital in the 1950s, Breault was dismayed at the sheer number of poisonings happening when children got into prescriptions and other pills such as aspirin. His dedication to solving this problem culminated in 1967 with the familiar “Palm N’ Turn” cap, requiring adult dexterity to push down and turn. In 1970, the United States signed the Poison Prevention Packaging Act into law to make these caps mandatory, ultimately decreasing deaths in children 5 and younger by 1.4 per million.

There’s also a logistical reason why the orange bottles have become standard: Different people need different amounts of the same medication. Since pharmacies typically purchase medications in bulk, their bottles aren’t well-suited for single prescriptions. It then makes the most sense for pharmacists to count out the number of pills needed for each person’s unique prescription and package them individually.

When you’re finished with your prescription, you don’t have to throw the orange bottle in the trash. Unfortunately, most municipalities don’t accept No. 5 plastic—the plastic pill bottles are made from—for recycling, but the bottles can often be donated to those in need. Matthew 25: Ministries, for example, has a pill bottle donation project that sends bottles to developing countries to improve their access to quality medical supplies. Some animal shelters also accept donations for pets that need medications—just don’t forget to remove any identifying information from your containers before handing them off. Here are more uses for your old orange pill bottles.

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