This Is the Real Reason Pill Bottles Are Orange (2024)

Updated: Jul. 01, 2024

That ubiquitous amber color serves a surprising—and surprisingly important—purpose. Who knew?

As a child who had to take a lot of medication—I grew up in the era when they gave you antibiotics if you sneezed twice—I had quite the collection of those plastic orange pill bottles with the white caps. I remember wondering vaguely why they were that strange color and then deciding that they must have been designed in the 1970s because everything from that decade seemed to have that weird sepia tone to it.

It turns out that I wasn’t far off chronologically. Plastic began being used in pill bottles after World War II, but the modern plastic pill bottle as we know it today, with its distinctive orange hue (technically, it’s called amber) and its white “push and turn” cap, wasn’t introduced until 1968. But I was wrong about the reason for the color.

I asked Jennifer Bourgeois, a pharmacist and health expert for SingleCare Pharmacy, to help me get to the bottom of this mystery. Read on to find out the reason behind pill bottles’ characteristic color and more interesting facts about your prescriptions.

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Why are pill bottles that clear orange color?

My childhood hunch was wrong; the amber color isn’t just hippie aesthetics. “Prescription pill bottles are clear orange for a few important reasons,” Bourgeois says.

To keep medications potent

“It’s important that we protect medication from light, as it can degrade or lose potency when exposed to UV light,” Bourgeois explains. The color orange helps filter out the UV light so it does not alter the medication. Nearly every type of medication, from antidepressants and antibiotics to pain relievers and sleep aids, is dispensed in these bottles. They’ve become as ubiquitous as those over-the-counter bottles stuffed with cotton.

To keep medications visible

If you wanted to block all UV rays, you’d just make the pill bottles opaque (and many are shipped from the manufacturer this way for this reason), but that would make it harder for patients to use them. So at the pharmacy, techs will often take the pills from the opaque bulk manufacturer bottles and dispense them into clear amber containers so the patient can see the medication inside.

“This is designed to help one identify the medication, as well as know how much of their prescription is left,” Bourgeois says.

To make medications recognizable

From a safety and marketing standpoint, making pill bottles one unique color is a smart move. “Orange prescription bottles have been accepted as the standard practice, and when someone sees an orange bottle, they connect this with prescription medication,” says Bourgeois. This connection is so strong that it communicates across languages, ages and cultures that whatever is in the bottle is medication and should be treated with care.

What about the special white cap?

This is a safety precaution to protect kids. “This is especially important for young children so they cannot easily access potentially harmful medicine,” Bourgeois says. Often, child-resistant caps have a specific technique to open, such as pushing down while twisting. The most common childproof cap in use today is the “palm and turn” cap.

It was invented by Henri Breault, a pediatrician who launched a public-health campaign in the early 1960s to reduce accidental poisonings in children after seeing far too many deaths in his young patients. The public-awareness campaign did little, however, so he partnered with an engineer to create the first childproof cap, designed to fit the amber bottles, in 1967. It inspired the United States to pass the Poison Prevention Packaging Act in 1970, mandating the use of childproof caps. It made a huge difference—rates of accidental medication-poisoning deaths in children under 5 have decreased by more than 80% since the act passed.

Do pill bottles have to be orange plastic?

No. Pill bottles can and do come in a variety of colors and materials. Some are designed, from a marketing perspective, to help patients with brand recognition. Others are designed with a specific purpose to protect the medication—for instance, medications that really need to be kept out of sunlight, such as some types of antibiotics, often come in opaque bottles. But the amber color is by far the most popular since it is considered the standard.

Bourgeois adds that pharmacies generally don’t choose the color or style of pill bottles they use, opting instead to order the standard sizes in bulk from a wholesale supplier—another reason they all tend to be the same.

Is your medication safe in these bottles?

Yes, you can trust that if your medication comes in a particular package, then it will be adequately protected. One problem pharmacists often see, however, is when patients remove the pills from the manufacturer or pharmacy packaging and put them in daily pill dispensers. Many of these are made from cheap plastic that is neither UV-resistant nor airtight, and that can degrade your medications. It also makes it less safe by making it easier for children and pets to get into.

How to store medication properly

While the packaging will protect your medication, it will do so only up to a point. You still have to store it correctly. In addition to keeping your meds in their original packaging or bottles, which also ensures that the right person is taking the right meds at the right dose, here’s what you need to know.

  • Store it at the appropriate temperature and humidity. Generally speaking, this means storing it in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight, but check your bottle (or ask your pharmacist) to make sure. Some medications will need to be refrigerated, and if that’s the case, keep them in the fridge at all times. Helpful hint: “Proper storage” will never entail stashing your pills in a hot, damp bathroom!
  • Keep things tidy. Organize your medicine cabinet, making sure the storage area is clean and inaccessible to pets or children.
  • Toss it after the expiration date. Just like food, medications go bad over time. Routinely check the expiration dates on the bottles (yet another reason to keep your pills in their original bottles!), and destroy them after that date. Bourgeois does not recommend throwing old medications in the trash or flushing them down the toilet, as that can cause environmental problems. Instead, ask your pharmacist about their pill-recycling days, or use this handy online tool to find a pill-recycling center near you.

About the expert

  • Jennifer Bourgeois, PharmD, is an integrative health pharmacist with more than 15 years of experience and a pharmacy and health expert for SingleCare Pharmacy. She is the CEO of Well & Free and the founder of A New View, a nonprofit that recycles and repurposes used eyeglasses.

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AtReader’s Digest, we’re committed to producing high-quality content by writers with expertise and experience in their field in consultation with relevant, qualified experts. We rely on reputable primary sources, including government and professional organizations and academic institutions, as well as our writers’ personal experiences where appropriate. We verify all facts and data, back them with credible sourcing and revisit them over time to ensure they remain accurate and up to date. Read more about our team, ourcontributorsand oureditorial policies.


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