Chemicals Used In Pharmaceuticals | The Chemistry Blog

06 May.,2024


Chemicals Used In Pharmaceuticals | The Chemistry Blog

From acetone to hydrochloric acid, various types of organic and inorganic chemicals are used in the pharmaceutical industry. Some act as solvents or reagents, while others are used as catalysts or active ingredients.

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Chemicals are vital in the production of a wide range of pharmaceutical products, including medicines, topical ointments, vaccines, food supplements, and special infant milk formulations. 

While some of these chemicals are unsafe or even poisonous, when used in combination with other chemicals they play an essential role in synthesising all sorts of drugs and medicines.

Read on to learn more about the types of chemicals that are used in the pharmaceutical industry, the role they play, and the potential risks they pose.

Why are chemicals used in the pharmaceutical industry?

There are many different reasons why chemicals are used in the pharmaceutical industry. Some are used as active ingredients or catalysts, while others act as solvents, precursors or reagents. Certain types of chemicals may also be used as preservatives, desiccants, and packaging materials for medicines like water-soluble capsules.

Medicines and other pharmaceutical products are themselves chemicals that are derived from other chemicals or homogenous mixtures. The specific mode of delivery varies depending on the particular product. For example, topical medications, such as antifungal ointments, can simply be applied to the skin, while injectable medicines like insulin are injected directly into the bloodstream. Some types of medication can even be delivered as delayed dosages via computerised injections. 

However, the oral route tends to be the most common method of delivery. Pharmaceutical drugs that are designed to be taken orally are often packaged as tablets or as powders in water-soluble capsules. Other oral medications may be packaged as liquids or water suspensions.

The most common chemicals used in the pharmaceutical industry

Some of the most common chemicals used in the pharmaceutical industry include acetone, hydrochloric acid, acetic anhydride, benzyl chloride, and diethyl ether. These may either be used as active ingredients, solvents, precursors, or reagents. 

1. Acetone

Acetone is the simplest type of ketone with the chemical formula (CH₃)₂CO. A colourless, highly-volatile liquid with a characteristic pungent smell, it’s commonly used as an organic solvent in many pharmaceutical manufacturing processes.

2. Hydrochloric acid

Naturally produced by the stomach, hydrochloric acid (HCl) is a strong acid that helps to break down food and aid digestion. It’s produced industrially in several ways:

  • Through the chlorination of organic chemicals

  • By combining hydrogen and chlorine

  • Via the salt-sulphuric acid production process

  • As a co-product in silica manufacturing

Hydrochloric acid is primarily used to control the pH of pharmaceutical products and to adjust the pH levels of injections and ophthalmic solutions.

3. Acetic anhydride

Acetic anhydride, also known as ethanoic anhydride, has the chemical formula (CH3CO)2O. It’s mainly used as a raw material in the manufacture of medicines such as aspirin and acetaminophen.

4. Benzyl chloride

Benzyl chloride (C₆H₅CH₂Cl) has a wide range of applications in pharmaceuticals. It’s used in the manufacture of everything from plasticisers and sanitising agents to biocides, benzyl alcohol, and artificial fragrances.

5. Diethyl ether

Diethyl ether is an organic compound with the chemical formula (CH₃CH₂)₂O or (C₂H₅)₂O. In pharmaceuticals, it’s typically used as a reagent and a solvent. It’s also used in medicine as an anaesthetic.

Working safely with hazardous chemicals in the pharmaceutical industry

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Many of the chemicals used in the pharmaceutical industry are hazardous, especially in concentrated solutions. Some chemicals like hydrochloric acid are highly corrosive, for example, while others are toxic when ingested or inhaled. It’s therefore essential to take the necessary precautions when you handle any hazardous chemical.

Some of the recommended safety precautions include the following:

  • Wear protective gear

    – workers must wear PPE or at least the minimal standard protective equipment such as gloves, facemasks, and goggles when handling

    hazardous chemicals

  • Store at the right temperature

    – some chemicals become very unstable and potentially flammable when exposed to high temperatures. This means it’s crucial to store volatile chemicals at the right temperature as per the product’s

    material safety data sheet


  • Use clear labels and instructions

    – all chemical containers must be clearly labelled and display the relevant hazard warnings. They must also contain instructions on how to treat anyone who is exposed to it.

  • Emergency showers and sprays

    – the facility must have emergency showers and pressurised sprays installed in strategic places inside the factory and storage area. These are designed to be used in the event that someone is exposed to a toxic or hazardous chemical.

  • Antidotes and first aid kits

    – antidotes and first aid kits must be readily available and easily accessible throughout the facility.

Chemical hazards in the pharmaceutical industry

Although accidents can be prevented by following the appropriate protocols and safety standards, there are certain situations in which workers can still be exposed to these hazards, either directly or indirectly. Here are some examples of chemical hazards in the pharmaceutical industry, along with advice on how to address them.

1. Damage or dysfunction

If a chemical container is damaged or one of the chemical processing machines malfunctions, it might be necessary to shut down production and evacuate the area. A specially-trained team using advanced equipment such as robotics should then be brought in to clean the site. It’s essential to wait until the clean-up operation is complete and the hazard is eliminated before starting any kind of repair work.

2. Handling chemicals

A hazardous situation can also arise if a chemical isn’t handled properly. To avoid potential accidents, anyone who is found to have mishandled chemicals should be notified immediately. Retraining and disciplinary action must be taken if necessary.

3. Research or experimental mistakes 

Errors in judgement or methodology can sometimes lead to mistakes during the research and experimentation stage. Once the mistake has been identified, it should be corrected to minimise the risk of future hazards. It’s also important to establish protocols for double-checking results based on previous mistakes.


Chemicals are used in the pharmaceutical industry for a variety of purposes including as reagents, solvents, catalysts, ingredients, and precursors. Some of the most common chemicals used in the synthesis and manufacture of pharmaceutical products include hydrochloric acid,  acetone, benzyl chloride, diethyl ether, and acetic anhydride. It’s essential to handle hazardous chemicals correctly and to follow the appropriate safety protocols to minimise the risk of accidents. 

ReAgent manufactures and supplies a wide range of chemicals to the pharmaceutical industry. We also hold the ISO 13485 certification for medical devices. Find out more about the industries we work with here.

Speciality chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry

Speciality chemicals are chemical products that are used as intermediates or raw materials in different stages of pharmaceutical manufacturing. They are either single-chemical entities or a combination of various chemical compounds designed for specific applications. Their utility is based on their performance or function rather than their composition.

Catalyst technologies play a crucial role in manufacturing several speciality chemical products.

Finding suppliers of speciality chemicals

Pharmaceutical Technology has listed some of the leading suppliers of speciality chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry, based on its intel, insights and decades of experience in the sector.

The list includes suppliers of various products and services such as research chemicals, custom synthesis and contract drug discovery research services, aqueous and powdered cleaning detergents for the pharmaceutical industry, and building blocks for drug design programmes.

The information in the download document is intended for pharmaceutical executives, research scientists, associates, chemists, technical associates, engineers, business development managers, and other individuals involved in the synthesis and distribution of speciality chemicals within the pharmaceutical industry.

Role of speciality chemicals in the pharmaceutical industry

Several speciality chemicals such as catalysts are used in commercial processes in the pharmaceutical industry, such as the synthesis of paracetamol, vitamin K, and erythromycin. Advanced catalysts such as nanocatalysts help to make the process development of drugs cleaner and greener to address growing concerns around climate change. Nano-asymmetric catalysts involving only a single step are being developed rapidly.

Catalyst research allows professionals to understand the challenges and optimise the application of catalysts based on their application conditions and the industrial requirements for suitable and more efficient process development.

Catalyst research also supports pharma research by aiding in the development of tailored catalysts.

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