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Eye-Opening: Systane vs. Systane Ultra

Continuing our look at line extensions of popular over-the-counter products, we turn our gaze to Systane — a leading brand of eye drops.

Here are two of their lubricating eye drop products:


The product on the left is regular Systane “long lasting,” while the one on the right is Systane Ultra “high performance.” Based on its name and description, Systane Ultra seems to be a premium product offering “extended protection.”

A check of the active ingredients of both products, however, reveals a surprise.


Systane ingredients

Both regular Systane and Systane Ultra have exactly the same active ingredients and seemingly in the same strength! So is this just another marketing gimmick like the one we spotlighted where regular Aleve and Aleve Back & Muscle have identical active ingredients?

We asked Alcon, the maker of Systane, what the actual difference is between these two products, and why they sell two different products with the exact same active ingredients.

A spokesperson for the company explained that the secret is primarily in the inactive ingredients which differ slightly between the two products. According to her that is why the “Ultra” product performs better.

“Compared to Systane, Systane Ultra has a unique mechanism of action due to the inclusion of sorbitol, which serves to optimize the viscosity of the drop to minimize blur by delaying the cross-linking of other inactive ingredients until the drop is actually in the eye. The way the inactive ingredients cross-link once Systane Ultra is dropped into the eye results in the creation of a viscoelastic protective layer over the ocular surface that reduces friction and is maintained between blinks for prolonged ocular comfort. Finally, the interaction of Systane Ultra with natural components of the tear film (e.g., calcium, zinc, and magnesium) strengthens the cross-linking of the protective layer and prolongs retention of the active ingredients on the ocular surface.” –Alcon spokesperson.

Got that?

Given that the “Ultra” product is nearly 50% more expensive, does it then last 50% longer than their regular one? The company didn’t answer that question.

Who would have suspected that two products with identical active ingredients would function differently because of the inactive ingredients? And that poses a problem for label readers who would not be able to glean that fact simply by examining a product’s contents.

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9 thoughts on “Eye-Opening: Systane vs. Systane Ultra”

  1. If this is actually true, then what does this tell us about the efficacy of generic vs name-brand drugs? Do inactive ingredients and fillers affect the way that prescriptions work?

  2. Yes, the inactive ingredients does matter. That is why there is a box to check or doctor writes “no generic” on the script. Some people can be allergic to some of the inactive ingredients also.

  3. Dawnita Barton is right… I wish all generic drugs were 100000% exact copies of the brand name drug when it comes to the ingredients only.

  4. Sorry, this time you are wrong. The terms “active” and “inactive” can be misleading. Just because some ingredients are termed inactive does not mean that they are unimportant or have no effect on how the product works. Particularly with eye drops in which the inactive ingredients effect how the active ingredients interact with the eye. I have Sjorgren’s Syndrome which causes dry eye so I’ve used a lot of eye drops and I can tell you that just because two products list the same active ingredients does not mean they work and feel the same when they hit the eye. Those inactive ingredients can make all the difference. Perhaps in the interest of fairness you should have shown us the inactive ingredient list on those drops as well as the active list.
    Here is a good overview of the subject of active/inactive ingredients I found after a brief Google search
    And here’s the FDA on the subject

    Edgar replies: Jim, the point of the story is highlighting the surprising fact that apparently the inactive ingredients CAN matter.

  5. It is possible to find an accurate listing of the inactive ingredients for many commercial products. Though it would be nice if manufacturers would clearly state on the package why one product is different from another.

    The interesting thing to me is whether the price disparity between the products matches the ‘value’ added in the additional ingredients.

  6. Ask for the scientific peer reviewed study that supports the claim made of the inactive ingredient, frankly their explanation sounds like the stuff you hear from naturopath quackery when selling their unproven “cures”.
    How much does sorbitol cost? Does it justify the price difference?

    Edgar replies: Bob, the PR person from Alcon provided these research studies as part of the their response:

    * Systane(r) lubricant eye drops in the management of ocular dryness Umberto Benelli Clin Ophthalmol. 2011; 5: 783-790.

    ** Torkildeson G, Abelson MB et al. Evaluation of functional visual performance using the IVAD method with currently marketed artificial tear products. Invest Ophthamol. Vis. Sci. 2009 50: E-Abstract 4649.

  7. Yes, inactive ingredients can make a difference. The real question is, is the difference worth the extra cost? Only the user can answer that question.

  8. I recently found out there is definitely a difference between the Long Lasting and the Ultra. By mistake I bought a bottle of the Long Lasting and noticed I had blurry vision after using it which I had been using the Ultra for years. I had to then purchase the Ultra and that was fine. The Long Lasting is cheaper but not worth it for me.

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