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Medicine Display Activity

Learn more about medicine display activity.
To make medicines palatable, disguise their taste, make them easy to swallow and provide an accurate dosage, the most popular systems used are pills, namely capsules and tablets. Capsules can be divided into hard and soft types, the hard capsules being used for powders or semi-solid preparations and the soft type for liquids. A tablet is a solid dosage of a medicine prepared by moulding or compression. As well as containing the biologically active medicine, capsules and tablets often contain other substances such as fillers, bulking and colouring agents. These increase, for example, the shelf-life of the medicine and improve the aesthetic look and feel of the medicine.
Hard capsules are made of gelatin, in two parts, one half being filled and then the two halves are fitted together. Whereas soft capsules are formed in a single piece, and the active ingredient is typically dissolved or suspended in an oil. In contrast, tablets can be made in virtually any shape, most being round, oval or capsule-shaped, to aid swallowing. To ensure they are strong enough to be handled they have a polymer coating, containing plastisicers and pigments - a smooth coating helps make larger tablets easier to swallow.
It is estimated that during the lifetime of every person in the UK, they will be prescribed over 14,000 pills - if we add in the number of tablets and capsules we buy over the counter, this rises to a staggering 40,000 pills! Inspired by English artist Damien Hirst, and his works of art on pill cabinets, this activity is about celebrating the diversity in shape, size and colours of tablets and capsules. Hirst used glass-fronted cabinets, stacked with rows of medicines - one piece, called Lullaby Spring, containing 6136 handcrafted and individually painted pills, sold for £9.65 million at auction in 2007 - at the time, this broke the European record for work by a living artist!
In some works of art he arranged the medicines on the shelves
so that they offer a model of the body: those at the top are medicines for the head; in the middle are medications for the stomach; those at the bottom treat ailments of the feet. So, be creative and produce an eye-catching display of any tablets and/or capsules of your choice - you could include vitamin tablets, cod liver oil capsules, throat lozenges or cough sweets. The aim is to emphasise the positive role of medicines in our health and wellbeing. Don’t forget to take a photo of it and share it with us. Who knows, you could create a masterpiece!

Damien Hirst, the well-known British artist, and art collector, has exhibited a variety of intriguing installations including a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde (methanal, HCHO) and a series of coloured dots in ordered rows.

In addition, Hirst produced a variety of works centred around using pills, capsules and packaging to create ‘medicine cabinets’. He is not alone, for example, Jason Mecier has crafted some spectacularly detailed, mosaic-like pictures of celebrities simply using differently coloured tablets. We hope that this will inspire you to create your own artwork using common household medicines.

The following ingredients will be required:

  • A selection of tablets, such as vitamin supplements, throat lozenges, cod liver oil capsules, and/or pain relief medication. If you have none of these to hand, try using mints and/or cough sweets.

The following items will be required:

  • Any aids to the artistic effect that you envisage, such as backlights, glass cups, mirrors, or other props.

The arrangement of the medicines is up to you. Be as creative as you like in your arrangements. You could take inspiration from Hirst or more general streams of art such as abstract geometry where geometric shapes are arranged to express meaning without forming recognisable real-world items.


Can you guess the significance of the picture we took or what it symbolises? Remember to post your own artistic pictures on our open Padlet (we have included some examples from previous courses to help inspire you) and/or on Twitter or Instagram hashtag #FLchemistry.


  • Take care not to ingest any tablets or medicines. We advise not to consume or re-package any of the medicines used during this activity and dispose of excess medicines in food or general waste bin.

Viagra Pills Are Blue While Nexium Pills Are Purple. Does the Colour of the Medicine Matter?

Research shows it does! Multiple trials (some with placebos, others with active medicines) show that patients’ colour-effect associations can impact a medicine’s efficacy by measuring physical signs like heart rate and blood pressure. Pharmaceutical companies are aware of these associations and carry out extensive research in this area when developing new products or rebranding old ones. For example, apparently, blue pills act best as sedatives, and red and orange are stimulants, while green reduces anxiety and white soothes pain. Brighter colours and embossed brand names further strengthen these effects – a bright yellow pill with the name on its surface, for example, may have a stronger effect than a dull yellow pill without it. Colour also has a more practical role in medicine manufacturing – with light-sensitive medicines, coloured tints can ensure opacity, keeping active ingredients stable. Colour, together with shape, also aids medicine recognition, to help ensure that medicines aren’t mixed up during production or packaging, and when the patient is taking them. The fact that colours are important explains why manufacturers ferociously guard their designs and colours with patents, and generic companies try so hard to resemble them.

Shelf Life

Many pharmaceutical products are sensitive to light and so it is crucial that they are protected from direct sunlight and certain artificial light. Hence light-sensitive drugs in tablets are coated with a coloured film to protect the product from light and prevent degradation. Interestingly, researchers in the Netherlands have been investigating if antibiotics can be deactivated after use so that they no longer accumulate in the environment (and encourage the emergence of resistant bugs). They have demonstrated a way to switch off antibiotic agents after just a few hours using warmth or sunlight.

Temperature is also a concern – any medication, unless it specifies that it needs to be refrigerated, really needs to be kept at room temperature in a dry place away from heat (also humidity and light). In the heat, a medicine may lose some efficacy. This is probably not going to be harmful, but a small change in dose can sometimes cause a change in the way the patient is feeling.

Price Matters

An interesting study showed that people who thought they were using an expensive anti-itching cream experienced more pain than those who used a cheap cream, even though both were completely fake. Two groups of people were given a fake anti-itching cream and told that it may cause increased skin sensitivity – the group that tried the expensive-looking cream reported much higher levels of skin sensitivity. This phenomenon, called the nocebo effect, relates to a person experiencing a negative response to a fake treatment just because they’ve been told that the medicine may cause side effects.

Interestingly, if a person taking a medicine knows that it’s expensive, this tends to boost the placebo effect (a fake treatment producing a beneficial response), and this study suggests it also increases the nocebo effect (a fake treatment producing a detrimental response). Presumably, people don’t experience the nocebo effect when taking a widely-used painkiller like paracetamol, aspirin, or ibuprofen because they don’t read the side effects on the box or in an accompanying leaflet.

Do you read the ‘small-print’ that comes with any medication you use?

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