vegan pain relief

Vegan Pain Relievers: Ibuprofen, Tylenol, Aspirin, Etc.

When you go vegan, some changes are obvious: No more beef hamburgers, for example. But most of us also go further: We stop buying leather, non-vegan shampoo, and more. But the “vegan status” of some products, like pain relievers, can be pretty hard to research.

So, which OTC pain relievers are vegan? The active ingredients of most OTC pain relievers (like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin) are vegan. However, many contain animal-derived inactive ingredients like gelatin or shellac. Aleve and Panadol are two of the most vegan-friendly brands I found. See a breakdown of products below.

I contacted over a dozen brands of pain relievers for this post. I’ll be sharing responses from several of them that confirmed certain products of theirs are vegan-friendly (yay!).

Along with the specific brands and products, I’ll also be covering some broader questions about animal testing, gels vs tablets vs liquid, and common misconceptions about vegan medication.

How to Tell If a Pain Reliever is Vegan (Label Reading Guide)

Ibuprofen. My personal choice for pain relief.

First, a disclaimer: I’m not advising anyone to forego medication. It’s okay to take “non-vegan” pills if you need to. Most of the animal ingredients are only there in small amounts anyway, and it’s more important to stay healthy than “100% vegan.”

Ok, now: When it comes to OTC pain relievers, the inactive ingredients are what you’ll want to check. Because the common active ingredients are all vegan, as far as I can tell.

So, we’re looking for animal-derived materials in the “inactive ingredients” list. You’ll often see gelatin in “gel cap” pills, and you may see shellac in coated tablets. These are both animal-derived, so they’re not strictly vegan. (Gelatin is from cow or pig, and shellac is from insects.)

There are also some “gray area” ingredients you may see. These can be derived from plants or animals—stearic acid is the most common. Another is polysorbate 80.

Should you avoid the “gray area” ingredients? It’s up to you. I don’t worry about them unless I’ve heard from the company that they’re animal-derived. (I did get confirmation that the stearic acid in Midol is beef-derived. But many companies couldn’t tell me the source.)

If you want to email a company to ask for more details, that never hurts. The more customers who send them asking about animal ingredients, the more likely these companies will start catering to vegans and labeling their products better.

Note: I will not be getting into topical pain relievers such as Bengay and Icy Hot in this post—that is covered in “Topical Pain Relief for Vegans.” I also won’t get into prescription painkillers or anesthesia in this post. But for your reference, here’s an interesting page I found on veganism and anesthesia.

Gels vs Tablets vs Caplets

Gels are pretty much never vegan. If you look at pain relievers that come as “Gels,” “Gel Caps,” or “Liquid Caps,” those typically include gelatin. Gelatin is not vegan, as it is made from boiled animal skins, hooves, and the like.

Tablets are more often vegan than gels. But there are still some concerns. Stearic acid and shellac are two ingredients sometimes used to coat the tablets. Stearic acid may be animal-derived (it varies), while shellac is always made by insects. So tablets can be vegan, but not always.

Caplets are just oblong tablets. So caplets are sometimes vegan, sometimes not.

Do Pain Pills Contain Lactose?

Most pain relievers do not contain lactose. Pharmaceutical companies occasionally uses lactose (from milk) as a packer/filler in pills and tablets. This is because it has good “compressibility” and a mildly sweet taste that helps for oral medications.

Which drugs contain lactose, and how much do they contain? Drugs.com has the following to say about it:

“Most medications do not contain enough lactose to cause lactose intolerance. But some patients with severe lactose intolerance may experience symptoms. Lactose can be found in birth control pills, and some OTC drugs to treat stomach acid or gas.

They also list the most common drugs containing lactose. I looked up all the medications on the list. The only pain relievers I could identify that contain lactose were prescription ones: meloxicam (Mobic), hydromorphone (Exalgo ER), and cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril).

(While doing the research for the rest of this post, I did find that Motrin PM Caplets contain lactose monohydrate. So that’s one OTC pain reliever with it!)

Keep in mind: The amount of lactose in these medications is likely quite low. Supposedly, the average pill containing lactose only has about ~25mg. So you’d need to take hundreds (or even thousands) of pills to equal a glass of milk (source).

While researching different pain relievers for this post, I found that several also specified they were lactose-free. So, by no means do all tablets contain lactose! It seems to be only a small percentage of them, although I feel hesitant to make that sweeping claim.

Even if a pill did contain lactose, it’s such a small amount, I’m not too worried about it as a vegan.

Should You Choose Liquid Pain Relievers as a Vegan?

If you want to avoid gel and tablet pain relievers for any reason, you could always take liquid pain relievers instead. This is what “The Vegan Doctor” suggests, actually.

Since liquid pain relievers are often made for children, you may need to adjust the dose for an adult, which seems potentially sketchy. The Vegan Doctor gives this example (source), which I’ll paraphrase:

  • A standard tablet of Ibuprofen includes 200mg of the drug.
  • 5ml of liquid Ibuprofen for children includes 100mg of the drug.
  • Therefore, you’d need 10ml of liquid Ibuprofen to equal one standard adult tablet.

Personally, I don’t take liquid Ibuprofen as a vegan. I just take the tablets. But I wanted to mention this option in case it appeals to some of you.

One last note on liquid pain relievers: I saw one claim online that there’s a Liquid Tylenol that contains honey. I couldn’t find this when looking for myself. But keep your eyes open for honey if you try to avoid it.

Are NSAIDs Vegan?

NSAID is short for “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.” They include ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), aspirin (Bayer, Ecotrin), and naproxen (Aleve), among others.

Most NSAIDs have active ingredients that are vegan. However, they are often paired with non-vegan inactive ingredients such as gelatin or shellac. Therefore, it’s worth looking at each specific brand and product.

Is Ibuprofen Vegan?

Ibuprofen itself is vegan. However, it is sometimes paired with non-vegan inactive ingredients such as gelatin (in gel caps) or shellac (in some coated tablets). So let’s look specifically at different brands and products.

Is Motrin Vegan?

Most Motrin products are not strictly vegan. The IB Liquid Gels contain gelatin, the IB Caplets contain shellac, and the PM caplets contain lactose monohydrate. Children’s Motrin Chewables appear to be vegan, however.

Motrin is a brand of ibuprofen, so like other ibuprofen, we know the main active ingredient is vegan. But let’s look at specific Motrin products and the extra ingredients they include:

Motrin ProductNon-vegan Ingredients“Gray Area” Ingredients
Motrin IB Liquid Gelsgelatin
Motrin IB Capletsshellacstearic acid
Motrin PM Capletslactose monohydrate
Children’s Motrin Chewables
Children’s Motrin Oral Suspensionpolysorbate 80
Infants’ Motrinpolysorbate 80, caramel

Polysorbate 80 and stearic acid are both “gray area” ingredients because they can be derived from animal fat or plant fat (source, source). Caramel often contains dairy, but again we don’t know for sure—caramel color is often vegan.

It should be noted that a couple of these products do contain magnesium stearate and/or glycerin. These ingredients can possibly be animal-derived, too, but good research has found them to be “typically vegan” in practice (source, source), so I didn’t bother listing them.

You’ll also see pregelatinized starch listed in some of these Motrin products. This ingredient sounds sketchy—similar to “gelatin”—but it is actually confirmed vegan by the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG).

Is Advil Vegan?

Advil is a brand of ibuprofen, so the active ingredient is vegan. Some Advil products contain inactive ingredients that are not vegan: Advil Liqui-gels contain gelatin, and some Advil caplets contain shellac. See below for the vegan Advil options.

I emailed Pfizer, the company that makes Advil, to ask them which Advil products are vegan. Here is the response I got (in March 2020):

“Advil Cold & Sinus Liqui-gels contain gelatin sourced from bovine.

Advil Allergy Sinus Caplets, Advil Allergy and Congestion Relief Tablets, Children’s Advil Suspension Grape do not contain animal-derived ingredients.

Advil Cold & Sinus Caplets contain shellac sourced from lac insect resin which is used in the coating and pharmaceutical ink.”

If you’ve never heard of shellac, it’s a weird ingredient made by insects and it’s used in some pill coatings and stuff.

So again, the vegan Advil options they listed are:

  • Advil Cold & Sinus Caplets
  • Advil Allergy and Congestion Relief Tablets
  • Children’s Advil Suspension Grape

Off-Brand Ibuprofen

I usually buy off-brand ibuprofen. The exact ingredients will vary. You can use the above guides to Motrin and Advil to see examples of which ingredients may be included and which aren’t vegan.

Personally, I am not too concerned about the minor ingredients, as long as I avoid gelatin. So I just make sure not to buy “gel caps” or “liquid-caps” or anything like that. I get tablets/caplets. If I can find one without shellac, that’s preferable.

Is Aspirin Vegan?

The active ingredient in aspirin is vegan. It’s synthesized from salicylic acid and acetic anhydride, neither of which are animal-derived. However, inactive ingredients that are not vegan, such as gelatin and shellac, are used in many aspirin products.

Let’s look at two specific aspirin brands as examples.

Is Bayer Aspirin Vegan?

Some Bayer Aspirin products are vegan and others are not. None of them contain gelatin. However, some of the Bayer Coated Caplets contain shellac, which is an animal product made by insects.

I emailed Bayer in April 2020 to ask which of their products contain animal-derived ingredients. I believe the customer service representative gave me incomplete information, however. This was their response:

“It is my pleasure to inform you that none of our Bayer Aspirin formulations contain the ingredient, Gelatin. The gelatin ingredient would be the ingredient sourced from animal/pork-derived products.”

This was good news, but it doesn’t address the broader question of other possibly animal-derived ingredients. And when I checked, it looks like Bayer Back and Body Coated Caplets contain shellac, which is not strictly vegan.

However, it looks like the standard Genuine Bayer Aspirin (325 mg) is likely vegan. And I’m guessing other of their products are fully vegan, too. You can access the ingredient lists for all Bayer Aspirin products from this page. The main ingredient to watch for would just be shellac.

Is Ecotrin Aspirin Vegan?

Ecotrin aspirin is not strictly vegan. Both Low Strength and Regular Strength Ecotrin are coated with shellac wax, which is the product of an insect. They also contain stearic acid, which is sometimes derived from animals.

Is Aleve Vegan?

Aleve (naproxen) is usually vegan. Bayer has confirmed that Aleve Caplets and Tablets do not contain any animal-derived ingredients. However, Aleve Gels and Gelcaps contain gelatin, so those products are not vegan.

I emailed Bayer to ask which Aleve products are vegan, and here was their response (in March 2020):

“Aleve Arthritis Gelcaps and Aleve Liquid Gels contain ingredients derived from beef and pork.

Aleve Caplets and Tablets do not contain ingredients derived from an animal source, however we cannot guarantee they are vegan as they are manufactured at a location that manufactures other formulas which do contain beef and pork ingredients.”

You may be wondering what to make of that last part of their response. Personally, I’m not worried about that, and most vegans wouldn’t be. It’s very similar to the issue of when a food label says “May contain milk.”

I wrote a full blog post about it here, but the short version is this: Usually there is no cross-contamination actually happening. And even if there was, from an activist standpoint, it doesn’t really help to boycott companies that need to share equipment or facilities.

So if you’re going for Aleve, just opt for the Caplets or Tablets, and I think you’re fine from a practical vegan perspective.

Is Excedrin Vegan?

Excedrin Caplets may be vegan, but Excedrin Geltabs are not vegan. More information below.

First, I emailed GlaxoSmithKline, the company that makes Excedrin, to ask if it’s a vegan product. However, they were not willing to tell me anything:

“The formulation details regarding the source of ingredients are proprietary to GSK and hence cannot disclose further information on the same.”

So I looked through some of the ingredients lists for Excedrin on the website. Here is the pattern I noticed:

  • Excedrin Caplets generally contain stearic acid and polysorbate 20, which are both “gray area” ingredients for vegans—they can be either plant- or animal-derived.
  • Excedrin Geltabs contain gelatin, so they are not vegan.

Of course, check the individual products if you want to be sure, but that was the pattern I saw after looking through about 5 different Excedrin products.

Is Tylenol Vegan?

Tylenol may be vegan. The active ingredient (acetaminophen) is vegan, but inactive ingredients vary. Most Liquid Tylenol and Tylenol tablets appear to be vegan. Tylenol Gels contain gelatin, however, which is not vegan. Tylenol is owned by Johnson & Johnson, which some vegans boycott for animal testing.

Again, my personal opinion is that it’s okay to take whatever pain reliever you need as a vegan, including Tylenol. But for the sake of completeness, I did some research on whether Tylenol is fully vegan.

The main question with Tylenol comes down to whether you’re looking at tablets vs gel caps vs liquid. Which are vegan, and which are not?

According to the Vegetarian Research Group (VRG), the “pregelatinized starch” found in Tylenol tablets is indeed vegan. However, Tylenol gel capsules contain gelatin, which is animal-derived and not vegan.

Another ingredient of concern to some vegans in Tylenol is magnesium stearate. It can come from either plants or animals, so when you see it listed, you don’t know which one. But VRG was also able to confirm with a Tylenol representative that their magnesium stearate is not animal-derived (source).

As noted above, some tablets made by the pharmaceutical industry contain lactose as a packer/filler. But I have not seen indications that this applies to Tylenol. Pharmasave lists Tylenol tablets as lactose-free (source).

As far as the animal testing issue with Johnson & Johnson, it comes down to your personal views on vegan activism strategies.

I personally don’t think boycotting Tylenol as an individual will effectively change what J&J does. I think public-facing campaigns against their animal testing may be worthwhile—but when it comes to the pain relief you need, just take what you need.

Is Paracetamol Vegan?

Paracetamol is another term for acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. Acetaminophen is indeed vegan. But it may sometimes be paired with inactive ingredients that are not vegan, particularly gelatin. Since gelatin is not vegan, most vegans choose tablets or liquid paracetamol, not gel caps.

Is Panadol Vegan?

Most Panadol products are vegan. The only ones known to contain animal-derived materials are Panadol Mini Caps, which contain gelatin. All other Panadol formulations have been confirmed free of animal ingredients by GlaxoSmithKline.

I emailed GlaxoSmithKline, the company that makes Panadol, and asked them which Panadol products are vegan. This is what they said (in March 2020):

“Following a review of the product formulations and supplier documentation, we can confirm that all Panadol (in exemption of Panadol Mini Caps) formulations do not contain animal derived materials, including meat, fish, eggs or dairy products.

Please note that GSKCH has not formally confirmed these products as ‘vegan’, since formal confirmation has not been received from the suppliers of all individual ingredients.

Panadol Mini Caps formulation contains gelatin of bovine/porcine origin.”

So again, stay away from the gel caps (in this case, “Mini Caps”) and you will be fine.

Vegan Menstrual Pain Relief

I wanted to cover a couple of pain relievers that are specific to menstrual/period pain relief, too. So I looked into Midol and Pamprin.

Is Midol Vegan?

Some Midol products may be vegan. Midol Gelcaps are not vegan as they contain gelatin. Midol Long-Lasting Relief Caplets are not vegan as they contain beef-derived stearic acid. Other Midol Caplets may be vegan—see the email below.

I emailed Bayer, the company that makes Midol, to ask which Midol products are vegan. Here was their response (in March 2020):

“After, some thorough research we are showing that the Midol Complete Gelcaps has gelatin which is derived from pork and Midol Long-Lasting Relief Caplets contains stearic acid derived from beef.

At this time we cannot confirm if Midol Complete Caplets or Midol Caffeine Free Caplets are vegan, as many of the ingredient sources are considered proprietary.”

So again, stay away from the gelcaps, and in this case, also avoid the products with stearic acid. (Stearic acid is sometimes vegan, sometimes not. In this case, the brand has told us that it’s beef-derived, so most vegans would not consider that vegan.)

Is Pamprin Vegan?

Pamprin may be vegan. The main ingredient of concern would be stearic acid, which can be plant- or animal-derived, and the company has not stated which it uses.

I emailed the company that makes Pamprin to ask which of their products are vegan. This was their response (in March 2020):

“Due to the numerous suppliers of raw materials we cannot guarantee that our products don’t contain some type of animal origin.”

If we look at the ingredients for Pamprin Multi-Symptom Caplets and Max Formula Caplets, the most suspicious ingredient to me is stearic acid, which can be animal- or plant-derived (source). We don’t know which it is if the company won’t tell us.

So it’s really unknown if Pamprin is fully vegan, but there are no obvious offenders. I would personally be okay with taking it, if I was looking for menstrual pain relief.

Natural Pain Relief Options

I don’t have much personal experience with “natural pain relief.” Personally, I like to just pop an ibuprofen and be done with it. But there are natural substances that have been used for centuries to relieve pain. Some have great supporting evidence.

One of the most interesting to me is ginger. Here you can find a bunch of videos that Dr. Greger from NutritionFacts.org made sharing the research on using ginger for various kinds of pain relief, from muscle cramps to menstrual pain and osteoarthritis.

Another option, in some cases, is to add heat packs or cold compresses into the mix. This is cheap and simple, but you need to know when to use each. Here is a guide from Heathline on hot therapy vs cold therapy for different kinds of pain.

For more natural painkillers, check out this article from Vegan Food and Living. They list out a whole bunch of natural options for headaches, arthritis, joint and muscle pain, and inflammation in general.

My typical concern with “natural remedies” is that may not be as potent—or in some cases, their efficacy is not proven by science at all. Dosages are not always easy to figure out, either.

For these reasons, I still use ibuprofen when it comes to my own occasional headaches and pain. But the case for some natural pain relievers is stronger than for others. If they interest you, check out the resources I linked!

Are All Pain Relievers Tested on Animals?

To my knowledge, any medication you’ll find at the store was likely tested on animals at some point. That is just the way our society currently checks the safety of drugs.

But again, this doesn’t mean that “No medicine is vegan” or “Vegans can’t take medicine.” Remember that consumer boycott is just one of the tools we have at our disposal to fight animal cruelty.

I don’t think it’s worth trying to personally avoid every product in our society that was tested on animals at some point. It’s going to exhaust you, and it won’t practically create change. So forget that tactic.

Instead, call and email companies asking them to stop their testing. Get behind legislation and funding changes that will reduce how much animal testing happens. Support companies that do publicly label themselves as cruelty-free when possible. That’s a more practical kind of veganism.

Why I Think It’s Ultimately Okay to Take “Non-Vegan” Medicine

After all this discussion of different pain relievers, I want to say this: You can take “non-vegan” medicine and still be vegan.

For one justification of this, refer to the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism, which is the most widely used definition today:

“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” (source)

Veganism is not an absolute rule saying you can never consume anything that involved an animal in any way: It’s about doing what is “possible and practicable.”

How you interpret “possible and practicable” may depend on how dedicated you are to your vegan ethics, as well as the details of your vegan ethics (that’s a link to my huge guide to vegan ethics!).

Some vegans may decide that it’s worth researching the specific ingredients in all their medications, contacting companies to ask how specific ingredients are sourced, and asking their physicians about vegan alternatives.

Other vegans, like myself, will decide that it’s okay to just take the medicine your doctor prescribes you—and to make a difference for the animals in other ways.

Your health is important. Your health is intrinsically important, of course—and it’s also important for another reason if you’re vegan: If you become a sick vegan because you don’t take your “non-vegan” medication, that will have a bad impact for the animals.

Think about it: Many people already think veganism is unhealthy. Seeing you as a sick vegan will only reinforce that viewpoint. So for the animals’ sake and your own, don’t boycott the medications you need!

Compounding Pharmacies: If You Really Want 100% Vegan

As a final point, I’ll mention this: Some of the strictest vegans I found said that they seek out compounding pharmacies to put together fully vegan pills for them.

These compounding pharmacies can take an active ingredient, like ibuprofen, and make sure that all the inactive ingredients in the tablet are going to be vegan, too.

In my opinion, this is an unnecessary step to take, and it will just cost you a lot of extra money without having much practical impact for the animals. But if you want to go that extra length to have confirmed, fully vegan medications, you can look into this option.

Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey

1. This is the best vegan multivitamin I’ve found in 13 years of being vegan. It has vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3—and nothing else. Translation: It only has the nutrients vegans are actually low in. Read my full review of Future Kind’s multivitamin here (with 10% discount).

2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.

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