Questions & Answers: Cartoning Trends

Packaging trends in the beauty, personal care and health care markets.

By Dana Austin, General Manager for IWK Packaging Systems

Of the markets you serve, which have undergone the most significant changes in the past few years, as it relates to their needs in packaging equipment? How and why?

We serve the beauty/personal care and healthcare markets. Of these, the healthcare market has seen a substantial recent shift toward injectables such as vials, pens and prefilled syringes. Each of these have been undergoing a transition away from high-speed packaging with long runs to lower speed lines designed to handle changeovers more efficiently and expediently.

Notably, we learned during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis that the healthcare sector’s production lines, while robust and rapid, had difficulties adapting to varying packaging formats. It’s understandable, then, that customers now frequently prioritize flexibility over speed.

Has the rapid growth of e-commerce, particularly in the cosmetics sector, affected cartoning? If so, how? What elements of cartoning are more important in e-commerce applications than with brick-and-mortar products? For example, have secondary packages for certain items needed to become more robust, to mitigate risk of damage during shipping?

Absolutely, the beauty sector is facing significant obstacles related to e-commerce, as well as specialized demands from big box stores. From a cartoning standpoint, the varying needs of these sellers creates challenges.

Of course, some applications could be as simple as different multi-pack needs, alternate carton design, or even eliminating the carton in favor of a tray. In terms of designing more robust packaging to mitigate damage, this is something packaging engineers must perpetually address. Notably, while additional packaging has been used to prevent leakage, cartons have remained fairly stable in thickness, since changing carton formats can heavily impact cost-effectiveness.

Sustainability has been arguably the most prominent trend in packaging for a decade or more. How has this affected cartoning? Right-sizing? More sustainable materials (such as abandoning plastic layers and/or coatings)?

The fact that cartons are primarily paper means there is no current risk to cartoning technology being phased out in the North American marketplace. Overseas, some companies are eliminating cartons due to European Union laws mandating that plastics and packaging materials be minimized.

North American companies are reacting less dramatically. While there is certainly some chatter regarding minimizing carton use, we’re not seeing any real action on that front.

However, the biggest trend we see is a replacement of plastics traditionally used for housing personal care items like toothbrushes and razors in blister packs. This type of packaging is already shifting to cardboard constructions that mimic blisters with a more sustainable pulp-based material. This shift is not yet widespread, since the technology is still nascent and imperfect. Finally, recycled plastic for tubes are gradually advancing as well.

Part of the sustainability push has been a call to eliminate secondary packaging when possible. Have you seen a decrease in the potential market for cartoning equipment, even if overall business remains strong?

We do not see a decrease in the cartoning market occurring yet.  There have been murmurs about eliminating cartons for years, but we haven’t seen it materialize. Much of this is customer perception: cartoned health and beauty products are perceived by the consumer as “cleaner” than non-cartoned products.

In addition, FDA rules regarding ample product warnings and instructions lend themselves to insert sheets, making it cumbersome or even impossible to eliminate cartons. The current sustainability focus is really on virgin, non-recyclable plastics.

Injectables are another area experiencing significant growth, with prefilled syringes at the forefront. How have cartoning needs and technologies for injectable medicines evolved along with this sudden uptick?

Yes, absolutely, this is where the growth is taking place. A sizable percentage of new drugs are formulated as injectables, which also happen to be the most demanding in terms of the varied technology required to carton them.

Specifically, this sector requires three different cartoning technologies: horizontal, vertical and top load. With demand booming, currently the biggest challenge for this market segment is lead time.

What have been the most pressing concerns from customers investing in new cartoning equipment? Throughput? Floorspace/footprint minimization? Flexibility? Machine availability?

To some degree, each of these items are pressing concerns. However, the issue impacting the most manufacturers – and most severely – is flexibility. As stated earlier, the move towards frequent changeovers as well as e-commerce/big box demands are pushing the flexibility envelope. The second-most typically challenge would be machine footprints and available floorspace.

Especially in the health & beauty and cosmetics industries, versioning can be vital to the overall success of a product series. How has the need for versatility impacted secondary packaging applications such as cartons?

Flexibility is a major selling point with new cartoning equipment these days. Fortunately, though, when it comes to product versioning carton sizes and styles are generally kept consistent – or at least within the given ranges of the cartoner being utilized. Versioning is generally a labeling or package printing issue as opposed to a cartoning concern, because even as brands create various versions of a product, they still favor the overall brand consistency provided by keeping cartons relatively uniform.

Line performance metrics, product traceability and supply chain transparency are increasingly making the leap from their roots in pharma to other sectors, including higher-end cosmetics and other luxury goods. How have needs like serialization and aggregation impacted cartoning?

We are beginning to see this trend in the cosmetics industry. I would imagine this will become common with cosmetics. The food industry would also benefit from such a practice.

While many companies use a separate “system” after the cartoner for serializing the cartons, many new cartoner purchases include an integrated laser or the ability to integrate a laser in the future. High-end cosmetic companies are utilizing more serialized codes on the cartons but have not seen aggregation in cosmetics yet. The 2D codes are largely to protect brands from knockoffs that seep into the market.

About the Author

Dana Austin, General Manager for IWK Packaging Systems, a manufacturer of premium tube filling and cartoning equipment for the pharmaceuticals and health & beauty sectors. Learn more at

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