Tube Improvements Are in the Details

Tube designers have followed the lead of the cosmetics industry to produce attractive, easy-to-use packages.

by Erik Swain, Senior Editor

The basic design of the tube has changed little in the past 20 to 30 years. But improvements are being made every day, especially in the pharmaceutical industry.

There are increasing efforts to make tubes, whether laminate, metal, or plastic, easier for the consumer to use. Protective properties such as child-resistant closures and tamper-evident features are becoming more common. And the drug industry has been steadily following the lead of other sectors, such as cosmetics and toiletries, to improve the look and feel of its tubes. By paying close attention to the needs of their clients, regulators, and consumers, pharmaceutical tube manufacturers and their suppliers have created better functioning and easier-to-use packages.


The most dramatic design changes in recent years have appeared in the closures. As recently as 10 years ago, practically all pharmaceutical tubes had simple screw-top closures. These closures had certain limitations: they were not the easiest closures to open, and they could not stand by themselves, which made them difficult to display.

Rexam Closures's Child-Resistant Closure for Tubes

The traditional screw-top closures required the consumer to perform a twisting motion to open the tubes. Today's flip-top caps enable tubes to be opened with a less awkward motion. Flip tops are very well liked by consumers, says Katherine Thornton, packaging development engineer, Schering Canada (Montreal), a division of Schering-Plough Corp. (Madison, NJ). "Most enjoy the flexibility of opening them and not having to twist them back on," she says. North American consumers have come to expect them, while European consumers are still used to the standard caps, she notes.

Wider closures, whether flip-top or screw-cap, have other benefits for the consumer. Because these wide closures provide a base for the tube to stand on, the product inside moves toward the opening instead of getting stuck in the tube. "The product is always at the mouth of the tube, and you have instant access to it," says Arther Barrett of Barrett Plastics (Harrison, AR), which makes closures. Users have easier access to all of the product in the tube.

Wider closures, whether flip-top or screw-cap, allow tubes to stand by themselves, enhancing their display capabilities. Traditional tubes with a narrow cap, unless somehow stored vertically, could only be stored horizontally, a position that would take up more space. To be displayed vertically on a retail shelf, these tubes had to be stored in folding cartons.

"That was functional, but it was not necessarily consumer friendly," says Michael Hoard, market manager for Glaminate tubes at Cebal Tubes North America (Norwalk, CT), a division of American National Can Co. "The movement to larger closures and flip-top caps is important. It not only improves consumer friendliness, but it helps distinguish one's [over the counter] pharmaceutical products from a competitor's products."

Today's larger closures eliminate the need for cartons and improve storage space. Tubes that stand alone without cartons allow the retailer to "display more in the same area, and a lot of display means more sales," says Barrett.

Another innovation is the SimpliTwist closure from Seaquist Closures (Mukwanago, WI), which contains a silicone valve that seals to prevent spills and allows dispensing at a predetermined rate.


With large flip-top closures now in wide use, many pharmaceutical tube manufacturers are addressing what appears to be the next great challenge of tube closures: how to make a child-resistant closure that is not frustrating for adults to open. A difficult-to-open top can negate the other consumer-friendly features on a tube.

Pharmaceutical tubes had never been subject to the Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC's) child-resistance mandates until April 1996, when the commission began requiring products containing lidocaine and dibucaine to be packaged in child-resistant tubes. Additionally, in January 1998, the commission decreed that child-resistant tubes also had to be senior friendly as well. Child-resistance mandates on packages containing minoxidil will take effect this year. No one knows whether these closures will become a trend for all tubes, but tube manufacturers and suppliers are bracing for their increased use, whether mandated by the government or requested by pharmaceutical clients.

"Child resistance is very new to tubes, and I think that will evolve," says Phil Lambert, marketing manager, healthcare group, Rexam Closures (Evansville, IN). "Once it becomes more necessary, there will be additional requests from pharmaceutical companies to incorporate that into their features."

In anticipation, Rexam developed the Tube Lock closure in conjunction with Cebal Tubes. It looks like a conventional screw closure but actually opens with a mild push and turn, enabling easy access for seniors while frustrating children who think it twists off like their toothpaste cap.

"It is not torque dependent and does not take a lot of force to push down," Lambert says. "The lugs lock into the bottleneck, and there is a bayonet-style neck finish. It creates a spring effect, but without having a second piece. This was developed in response to the CPSC's decisions, and we expect more products to be regulated over time, as well as voluntary moves in this direction."

One drug company, Astra Pharmaceuticals (Westborough, MA), has noticed the trend and is developing a child-resistant closure that "will fit smaller tubes, even smaller than the ones already out there," says Kevin Gagnon, manager, packaging development. The closure will likely debut in about a year, he says.


Another feature consumers have come to expect is tamper evidency. Tubes that are displayed in cartons rely on the outer packaging to provide evidence of tampering. But with the advent of stand-alone tubes, manufacturers have been working to build tamper-evidency features into the tubes themselves. "[Tamper-evidency features] are pursued because the pharmaceutical company or its marketing staff feels these features will enable their product to gain some value against competing products," says Hoard of Cebal.

The goal, Hoard says, is to develop tamper-evident features that meet at least three of the following requirements: reasonable cost, effectiveness, consumer convenience, aesthetics, and compatibility with the manufacturing process. Cost is particularly crucial, because if tamper evidency on a tube is not required, an expensive tamper-evident feature will not be justified.

TwinPak Inc. (Dorval, QC, Canada), for example, developed a plastic tube whose orifice has a thin membrane of plastic molded to it, says Bruce Stapleton, national sales manager. "Its cap has a piercing tip," he explains. "The cap is removed and reversed to puncture the seal. The tamper-evident membrane is not a new idea, but molding it when the thread of plastic for a tube is molded is a new idea."

Puncturing caps are also used on metal tubes, says James Cooper, vice president of sales and marketing, CCL Container (Chester, PA). His company also makes products with a seam on the tube that rolls over the cap to provide a tamper-evident closure.

A similar consumer-friendly feature is the freshness seal used on some pharmaceutical tubes. This seal is designed to increase customer confidence. "It is simply an orifice covering that is not deemed tamper evident by FDA guidelines but suggests to the consumer that the product is fresh," Hoard says. "In many respects it's considered a marketing advantage."

The Marketer's Tube Checklist

When choosing a tube style for a particular pharmaceutical product, keep the following questions in mind. Users will want to know:

1. Does the tube contain enough product?

2. Would my mother be able to open or remove the tube cap?

3. Would my children squeeze out too much and make a mess in the bathroom?

4. Does the tube label clearly tell my spouse what's inside?

5. Can I read the big type without my glasses?

6. Does the tube reclose tightly?

7. Will the tube contents stay as fresh as they were the day the tube was first opened?

by Doug Stewart, vice president of sales and marketing, Montebello Packaging (Oak Park, IL)



While the look and feel of a tube may be determined more by the marketing department than by engineers, they are still integral elements of the design process because they may be the basis of a consumer's decision when choosing among body creams or suntan lotions.

"We make soft-touch tubes that feel velvety," says Miguel Cortez, sales manager, JSN Packaging Products Inc. (Irvine, CA). "You need coextruded LDPE [low-density polyethylene] on the inside combined with a rubberlike compound on the outside to get a soft velvet feel. Some customers gravitate toward that."

Graphics, right down to what colors are used in the design, are also important, especially if the tube will not be placed in a carton. Thornton of Schering notes that when her company recently redesigned the tubes for its Complex 15 line of pharmaceutical creams, graphics were a major topic. "Marketing decided to make them more aesthetic and changed them to white tubes with purple and green, which are softer colors. Before, they had a gray look to them, which did not come across as beautiful. For the finish, we did not want to make it sticky or glossy," she says.


Consumer friendliness—and consumer safety—will continue to be vital to tube design as the public and regulators come to expect certain features and standards. The pharmaceutical industry is increasingly aware that the tube itself is nearly as important as what goes inside.

"Cosmetics definitely led the way in showing that the package sells the product," Thornton says. "In pharmaceuticals, the product is still more of the selling point, but now, to be competitive, you have to have both a good product and a good package."


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