Top 10 questions asked about bulk gel packs for food and pharmaceuticals

bulk gel packs in a soft cooler

We’ve all used coolers to keep our food and drinks cold when refrigeration is not available. However, many goods such as food, pharmaceuticals, wine, and other temperature-sensitive items need to be shipped and stored at a consistent temperature, sometimes for long periods of time.

Most are made of a refrigerant and plastic material, and each are designed for a different purpose. Bulk gel packs come in many flavors based on how they are used. Some are more durable and leak-proof; others are made to be used once and thrown away.

While there are a lot of questions out there related to gel packs for food and pharmaceuticals, there is also lots of differing, and sometimes incorrect information. Below are several of the questions we’ve seen, with answers, that come from an expert team using a lab to test gel pack solutions.

How long do gel packs last?

Gel packs freeze at a lower temperature than ice and generally last longer than ice. The length of time it can remain frozen varies based on the size, shape, temperature exposure, and how you are packing a shipment/cooler. If for example, if left out on tableat room temperature, gel ice packs will last only about 3-4 hours at best. When placed in a well-insulated and packed cooler, we have seen gel packs that last up to 6 days (144 hours). Generally, though food will remain cold for 24-36 hours in a standard cooler. The weight of gel will also enhance the freeze time with a higher weight gel taking proportionally longer to melt.

Are bulk gel packs for food dangerous?

Gel packs are designed to not leak under most circumstances but if they do, most are non-toxic and do not contain any hazardous materials. The gel in most freezer packs is usually a polymer or cellulose mixed with water. Some products may also include additives like preservatives, sodium chloride, minerals, water, or dye. Unless consumed in a large quantity, they should be relatively safe. If large quantities are consumed, you should consult a physician immediately. Note however, to be on the safe side, if a gel pack does leak into your food, we don’t recommend eating or serving it.

Can I take gel packs on an airplane?

According to the Transportation and Safety Administration (TSA), to pass TSA checkpoints, liquids must be frozen solid when presented for screening. All liquids must pass the 3-1-1 requirements if partially melted, slushy, or have any liquid at the bottom of the container. It states that each passenger may carry liquids, gels and aerosols in travel-size containers that are 3.4 ounces or100 milliliters. Each passenger is limited to one quart-size bag of liquids, gels, and aerosols. If you are carrying more than that amount, then you’ll need to check your bags or ship them.  The gel packs should be fine in the cargo hold in your luggage.

What types of gel packs are sold today and what is the difference between them?

There are several varieties of gel packs on the market today, from hard bottles to soft, flexible gel packs. Some options include:

  • Antimicrobial gel packs provide continuous protection against bacterial contamination, odors, and stains through a treatment of the outer plastic pouch.
  • Blue industrial grade gel packs demonstrate strong resistance to tears during harsh handling. Many are made with a recyclable polyethylene plastic to be tough and puncture-resistant.
  • Consumer-grade gel packs – are printed with safety labeling specifically for individual use and may be designed only for lunch boxes or coolers as they are not tested for temperature stability or to hold the temperature for specific periods of time.
  • Custom-printed gel packs can have your logo printed on them to promote your brand or provide instructions for use, safety, language or other points.
  • Drain friendly gel packs are a non-toxic, easy to dispose of product designed to last as long as standard gel packs but safe to pour down the drain, into your trash or even in your front yard.
  • Durable, leak-proof gels made for more rugged environments or ones where they would be used over and over many times (as opposed to single use gel packs).

Others may have exterior bags that are made of different materials to resist moisture (condensation) or contain solid materials that keep their shape when frozen or thawed. They are available in lots of sizes.

Are gel packs safer to use than dry ice?

Unlike gel packs, dry ice is considered a hazardous material. What that means is dry ice is subject to additional shipping regulations and special handling, specifically when shipping by air. Gel packs, on the other hand, don’t have the restrictions when shipping by air and can even be traveled with according to the TSA guidelines (see question on the 3-1-1 rule).

When should I use gel packs versus dry ice?

To select the best option for your needs, give it some thought. For example, how long do you need to keep something cold, how cold should the product get, and how will it be shipped and handled.  Dry ice and gel packs both have their positives and negatives.

Dry ice keeps frozen products inside the insulation well below 34 ° F (0 °C). This makes it ideal for shipping snap frozen seafood or meat over a short duration. The problem is that dry requires special handling and safety protocols due to its ability to damage skin when directly touched. It also may not be acceptable for use if you are shipping via air.

As an alternative to standard ice cubes, gel packs are a great alternative because they have many of the same qualities as ice but without the accumulation water that comes from melting ice. Gel packs are great for fresh seafood, pharmaceuticals, blood samples, medications, etc.

You can use a combination of the two. Use the gel packs to stabilize the dry ice and slow the sublimation rate and potentially extend the shelf-life of both the refrigerant and the product. This method may work for long-haul shipping over several days.

Generally, how do you use gel packs?

Gel packs should be used for products requiring temperature control such as – pharmaceuticals and life-sciences products, meat and seafood, and perishables. Generally, you should freeze your gel packs at least 24 hours before using them. We also recommend you lay them flat in the freezer and take them out for a bit until they start “sweating” a bit. Check out our blog on how to properly condition bulk gel packs for more details and exact instructions.

Are there rules and regulations to shipping temperature-controlled goods?

There are several rules and regulations to follow when shipping temperature-controlled shipments. Dry ice, for example, is considered a hazardous material and is regulated by the amount of dry ice used in the package. It also stipulates how the package must be labeled.

Based on the UPS website, “Temperature-controlled medical goods such as pharmaceuticals, diagnostic specimens and biological substances may be subject to FDA and DEA restrictions, along with federal hazardous materials regulations. The latter may also apply to chemical shipments.”

Can I use a gel pack on a cut or bruise?

We do not recommend using the same type of cold gel pack for medical needs as you would for shipping. Frozen gel packs for shipping or drink coolers have an outer nylon or plastic bag that, if frozen, can stick to skin and pull open wounds and scabs. Instead, we would recommend you use hot and cold therapy products from our sister company, Rapid Aid. Their products are made specifically for use with bruises, migraines, cuts, and other injuries.

Can gel pack contents be dumped down the sink?

Typically gel packs should not be dumped down your drain. Many contain a substance that will expand and clog your pipes. There are, however, a newer generation of gel packs that are drain-friendly, and can simply be cut open and drained in your sink.

TempAid Bulk Gel Packs

TempAid is a leading developer and manufacturer of gel packs, PCMs, shipping containers and pretested solutions. Our products are used worldwide to protect the integrity of goods in transit. Our ice gel packs come in numerous sizes and are also available in custom sizes. Click here to view our selection of stock sizes, or get in touch to discuss your specific requirements.