An Introduction To The Cold Chain: The Types Of Cold Chain Packaging, Cold Chain Packaging Materials, and Cold Chain Packaging Components

The management of pharmaceutical supply chains involves the intricate handling of logistics, particularly when it comes to the distribution of products that are sensitive to temperature fluctuations. In this context, the design and qualification testing of packaging assume crucial roles in safeguarding the safety and effectiveness of these pharmaceutical products.

Problems in the Cold Chain That can Cause Temperature Variations

Temperature fluctuations in the pharmaceutical supply chain can be attributed to a range of factors, including suboptimal storage conditions, delays in shipping, and human errors. Improper storage conditions, such as inadequate temperature control in warehouses or exposure to extreme heat or cold, can significantly impact the stability and efficacy of pharmaceutical products. Similarly, delays in shipping, which can occur due to logistical issues or unforeseen circumstances, expose the products to prolonged exposure to unfavorable temperature conditions, further jeopardizing their quality.

Furthermore, human errors can contribute to temperature fluctuations within the supply chain. Mistakes in handling or improper monitoring of temperature-sensitive products during transportation and storage can lead to inadvertent exposure to unsuitable temperature conditions. Whether it’s mishandling during loading and unloading, failure to comply with proper storage protocols, or inaccurate temperature monitoring, these human errors can have detrimental consequences on the product’s efficacy and overall quality.

To mitigate the risks associated with temperature fluctuations, proper packaging design and qualification testing play vital roles. Robust packaging design, tailored to the specific requirements of each product, serves as a protective barrier against external temperature variations. It helps minimize the impact of suboptimal storage conditions or shipping delays, acting as a safeguard for the product’s stability.

Additionally, qualification testing ensures that the packaging can withstand various environmental stressors, including temperature fluctuations, encountered throughout the supply chain. By subjecting the packaging to rigorous examinations and simulations, companies can identify vulnerabilities and make necessary adjustments to optimize its performance. This thorough testing process provides an assurance that the packaging can maintain the desired temperature range, even in the face of unexpected events or human errors.

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What types of cold chain packaging and cold chain materials are available?

cold chain packaging gel packs and PCMsThere are several cold chain packaging components and materials designed to maintain the required temperature range for temperature-sensitive products during transportation and storage. These packaging options include:

  1. Insulated Shippers: Insulated shippers are containers made of materials with excellent insulation properties, such as expanded polystyrene (EPS) or polyurethane foam. These shippers provide thermal protection by reducing heat transfer and minimizing temperature fluctuations.

  2. Gel Packs and Ice Packs: Gel packs and ice packs are commonly used in cold chain packaging to provide additional cooling. These packs are pre-frozen and placed inside the packaging to help maintain the desired temperature by absorbing heat and keeping the environment cool.

  3. Vacuum Insulated Panels (VIPs): VIPs consist of panels with a vacuum-sealed core that effectively minimizes heat transfer. These panels provide superior insulation properties and are commonly used in the construction of temperature-controlled containers and packaging.

  4. Phase Change Materials (PCMs): PCMs are substances that can absorb or release thermal energy as they transition between solid and liquid states. These materials can be incorporated into packaging to maintain a consistent temperature within the desired range. PCMs can absorb excess heat and release it when the temperature drops, helping to regulate the environment inside the packaging.

  5. Dry Ice: Dry ice, which is solid carbon dioxide, is often used as a refrigerant in cold chain packaging. It provides extreme cooling and helps to maintain very low temperatures. However, it requires careful handling due to its potential hazards, such as carbon dioxide gas release.

  6. Refrigerated Containers: For larger shipments or long-distance transportation, refrigerated containers, also known as reefers, are utilized. These containers have built-in cooling systems that allow precise temperature control throughout the journey.

  7. Temperature-Controlled Packaging Systems: Advanced temperature-controlled packaging systems incorporate technology, such as active cooling or heating elements and temperature sensors. These systems actively monitor and regulate the temperature within the packaging to ensure that the products remain within the desired temperature range.

The selection of cold chain packaging depends on various factors, including the specific requirements of the product, duration of transportation, and temperature range needed. Pharmaceutical companies and logistics providers carefully choose the appropriate packaging solution to ensure the integrity and efficacy of temperature-sensitive products throughout the supply chain.

A Visual Guide to Cold Chain Packaging Components and Cold Chain Materials

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Temperature control where scalability and uniform cold is needed.


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A durable choice for rough environments where reuse and tight pack outs are required.


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We have a full line of lightweight & low cost insulated coolers for every application.


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Tested solutions

Engineer your packaging to assure optimum performance and pack-out simplicity.


tempaid durable gel packs thum


A cost conscious choice for when a hardier gel pack may
be needed.


Temperature Controlled Packaging Solutions

Gel Packs

Reusable, recyclable, drain-safe gel packs eliminate thousands of tons of waste each year.


tempaid lowcost gel packs thum


Engineer your packaging to assure optimum performance and pack out simplicity.


PCM Mailer Envelope

PCM Mailer

Thermal insulated mailer
with Integrated


Frequently Asked Questions About Cold Chain Packaging and Cold Chain Materials

While they may not always be referred to in this way, there are three main types of packaging are primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary packagingSecondary packagingTertiary packaging
Primary packaging is the packaging that comes into direct contact with the product. It is often referred to as the “first line of defense” for the product, as it protects it from physical damage, contamination, and other environmental factors. Examples of primary packaging include bottles, tubes, blister packs, and bags.Secondary packaging is used to group and protect individual units of the product. It is often used for shipping and storage purposes, and may also include branding or labeling. Secondary packaging can be made of a variety of materials, such as cardboard, shrink wrap, or plastic bags. Examples of secondary packaging include cartons, trays, and pallets.Tertiary packaging is used for transportation and distribution of products, and provides additional protection and stability during handling and storage. It is typically used to protect multiple units of secondary packaging during transit. Tertiary packaging is usually made of heavy-duty materials such as corrugated boxes, wooden crates,
or pallets.

Cold chain packaging is designed to maintain a consistent temperature range for temperature-sensitive products, such as vaccines, medicines, and perishable food items, during storage and transportation. The components of cold chain packaging can vary depending on the product’s specific needs but generally include the following:

  • Insulated container: The insulated container is the outermost packaging layer, which helps prevent external temperature fluctuations from affecting the product. It can be made of various materials, such as expanded polystyrene, polyurethane, or vacuum panels.
  • Vacuum insulation panels (VIPs): These panels are made of a core material with low thermal conductivity and are encased in an airtight envelope. They provide excellent thermal insulation and can be used to maintain a specific temperature range for extended periods.
  • Refrigerant: The refrigerant maintains the desired temperature inside the insulated container. The most common refrigerants are gel packs, dry ice, and phase change materials (PCM).
  • Temperature monitoring device: A temperature monitoring device, such as a data logger, is used to monitor the temperature inside the packaging to ensure that it stays within the desired range. Some temperature monitoring devices can also provide real-time tracking and alerting capabilities.
  • Protective packaging: Protective packaging, such as bubble wrap or foam, protects the product from damage during transportation.
  • Outer packaging: The outer packaging provides an additional layer of protection and can be made of materials such as cardboard, plastic, or metal.
  • Labeling and documentation: Proper labeling and documentation, such as handling instructions and temperature range requirements, are important components of cold chain packaging to ensure proper handling and transportation of the product.

The types of materials for a specific temperature range are tested to remain safe and effective to use in products such as pharmaceuticals, biologics, and perishable food items.

There are some differences between cold chain packaging for food and cold chain packaging for pharmaceuticals due to the specific requirements of each industry.

One key difference is in the temperature range that needs to be maintained. While both food and pharmaceutical products require specific temperature ranges to maintain their quality and safety, the required temperature range can differ between the two industries. For example, food products may require refrigeration at temperatures between 0-5°C, while some pharmaceutical products may require much colder temperatures, such as -20°C or lower.

Another difference is in the type of packaging materials used. In the food industry, packaging materials that are non-toxic and safe for consumption are often used. In contrast, in the pharmaceutical industry, sterile materials with low extractables are preferred to avoid contamination of the product.

There may also be differences in the types of refrigerants and temperature monitoring devices used in cold chain packaging for food versus pharmaceuticals. For example, food products may use gel packs or dry ice as refrigerants, while pharmaceutical products may require more specialized refrigerants such as phase change materials or liquid nitrogen.

Furthermore, there may be different regulations and guidelines that need to be followed for cold chain packaging in the food and pharmaceutical industries. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has specific requirements for transporting temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical products. At the same time, food safety regulations may be governed by agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Active containers are those that have an active refrigeration or heating system built into them. They are designed to actively control the temperature inside the container and maintain a consistent temperature range throughout the transportation and storage of temperature-sensitive products. Active containers typically use compressors, fans, or thermoelectric cooling systems to maintain the desired temperature range.

On the other hand, passive containers do not have an active refrigeration or heating system. They are designed to provide passive insulation and rely on the use of temperature-controlled packaging materials and refrigerants to maintain the desired temperature range. Passive containers can be pre-conditioned before use by cooling or heating them to the desired temperature range. Once loaded with the product and refrigerants, the passive container will maintain the desired temperature range during transportation and storage.

While active containers can provide precise temperature control and are suitable for longer journeys or products requiring very strict temperature ranges, they are also more expensive to operate. They may require additional equipment, such as power generators or fuel cells. On the other hand, passive containers are less expensive to operate and may be more suitable for shorter journeys or products with less strict temperature requirements.

Most carriers do allow dry ice on their trucks and planes, but some regulations and guidelines must be followed to ensure safe transportation.

For example, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has specific guidelines for the transportation of dry ice by air. According to these guidelines, the amount of dry ice that can be transported on an aircraft is limited to a maximum of 2.5 kg per passenger. The dry ice must be properly packaged and labeled to indicate its presence.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has regulations that specify the maximum amount of dry ice transported on a truck or other surface transportation. The maximum amount of dry ice transported on a truck is 454 kg (1000 lbs), and the dry ice must be packaged and labeled according to DOT guidelines.

In addition to these regulations, carriers may have their policies and procedures for the transportation of dry ice, which may include requirements for packaging, labeling, and documentation. It is important to check with the carrier beforehand to ensure that all guidelines and regulations are followed.

There are several alternatives to using dry ice for shipping products that must remain frozen during transportation. Some of these alternatives include

  • Gel packs or ice packs: These are reusable or disposable gel packs that can be frozen and then used to maintain the desired temperature range during transportation. They are less expensive than dry ice and are less regulated, making them a good option for domestic shipping.
  • Phase change materials (PCMs): These can absorb and release thermal energy, helping maintain a consistent temperature range for the product. They are often used in combination with insulating packaging materials to create a temperature-controlled environment.
  • Liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide: This is a very cold liquid or gas that can freeze and maintain the temperature of products during transportation. It is commonly used for shipping biological samples and other temperature-sensitive materials.
  • Electric refrigeration: Active containers use electricity. This involves using electric-powered refrigeration units to maintain the desired temperature range during transportation. These units can be powered by batteries or by connecting to the vehicle’s power supply.
  • Vacuum insulation panels (VIPs): These panels provide excellent thermal insulation and can maintain a specific temperature range for extended periods. They are often used in combination with other temperature-controlled packaging materials, like gel packs or PCMs. 

The choice of an alternative will depend on the specific requirements of the product being shipped, the available resources, and the regulations and guidelines for transportation. Working with a qualified packaging and logistics provider is important to determine the most appropriate alternative for the product being shipped.

Insulated shipping containers and boxes are similar to cold chain coolers or shippers in that they are designed to maintain a specific temperature range during transportation. However, there are some differences between these types of packaging materials.

Insulated shipping containers and boxes are typically used for shipping products that are not as temperature-sensitive or do not require as strict temperature control as products shipped in a cold chain. They are designed to provide thermal insulation to help maintain the temperature of the product during transportation. They can be made of various materials, such as polystyrene, polyurethane, or VIPs, and may include additional features such as moisture barriers, shock absorption, and puncture resistance.

Cold chain coolers or shippers, on the other hand, are specifically designed for shipping products that require strict temperature control, such as pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and biologics. They may include additional features such as refrigerants, temperature monitoring devices, and active cooling systems (in the case of active coolers). They are often pre-qualified and validated to ensure that they meet the required temperature range for the specific product being shipped.

Overall, while insulated shipping containers and boxes can be used for temperature-sensitive products, they are not the same as cold chain coolers or shippers, which are designed for more stringent temperature requirements and often include additional features for maintaining the desired temperature range.


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Contact TempAid for a No-Obligation Consult Regarding Qualifying Their Product

TempAid specializes in designing and manufacturing temperature-controlled packaging solutions for the pharmaceutical industry. Our packaging is designed to maintain the appropriate temperature range throughout the cold chain, ensuring the safety and efficacy of pharmaceutical products. Contact us for a no-obligation consult regarding qualifying your product.