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FDA, What does FDA consider in determining whether to classify a product as a drug or device?

December 28 2022

FDA’s determination of whether to classify a product as a drug or device is based on statutory definitions, as set forth in sections 201(g) and 201(h) of the FD&C Act, respectively. We apply these definitions to products, relying on the scientific data that are available to FDA at the time of the classification determination concerning the product for its proposed use(s)/indication(s).

Medical product classification determinations often focus substantially on whether a product that meets the definition of drug also meets the statutory definition of device.

What Is the process for obtaining a formal classification determination for a product?

Generally, OCP will respond to the sponsor in writing within sixty days of the RFD filing, identifying the classification of the product as a drug, device, biological product, or combination product. If the Agency does not provide a written response within sixty days, the sponsor’s recommendation respecting the classification of the product is considered to be the final determination.

A new determination may be appropriate if there is a change in, for example, a proposed indication for use or in a component of the product, or if the sponsor or Agency becomes aware of additional information that reveals that the means by which the product achieves its primary intended purposes differ from what was originally described in the RFD. For example, if a sponsor wished to change the indication for a product and that new indication would be achieved through a different mechanism than the original indication, a different classification for the new indication might be appropriate.

Table 1: Examples of Medical Products that Achieve Their Primary Intended Purposes through Chemical Action within or on the Body




Aspirin is used for pain relief. Acetylsalicyclic acid (aspirin) contains an acetyl group that has the ability to covalently bind to a serine residue of a cyclooxygenase enzyme (COX-1 or COX-2). This is considered pharmacological action because it inactivates the enzyme and thereby inhibits the synthesis of prostaglandin and thromboxanes, which suppresses the body’s inflammatory response for pain relief.

Beta Blockers

Beta blockers are used to reduce blood pressure. Cells contain beta receptors that can be stimulated by neurotransmitters such as adrenaline/epinephrine. Beta blockers, like propranolol, bind beta receptors (b1 and b2) and exhibit pharmacological action by inhibiting the activation of the signaling cascade. This blockage causes cardiac cells to reduce the strength of cardiac contractions and heart rate.

Magnesium Sulfate

Magnesium sulfate is used as replacement therapy for magnesium deficiency. It acts as a catalyst in enzymatic reactions (a molecular-level interaction). While the chemical or atomic structure of magnesium sulfate is not altered, its participation in enzymatic reactions is considered a pharmacological action because it impacts various cellular and molecular processes.

Polymyxin B Sulfate

Polymyxin B sulfate is an antibiotic that is used to treat bacterial infection. It is composed of a cationic protein surfactant that has fatty acid functional groups. Polymyxin B sulfate acts through intermolecular forces, by binding to components of the bacterial membrane (i.e., the membrane of the foreign entity) and by association/fusion of the fatty acid portion of the molecule with the lipid bilayer via hydrophobic interactions. This binding is a pharmacological action because it disrupts the integrity of the bacterial membrane, which causes organism death, thereby treating the bacterial infection.


Hydroxocobalamin is used as an antidote to cyanide poisoning. The cobalt moiety of hydroxocobalamin exhibits pharmacological action because it chemically reacts with cyanide, a toxic chemical agent, to form cyanocobalamin, a non-toxic compound, and the ability of hydroxocobalamin to interact with cyanide facilitates the removal of the toxic agent in order to inhibit the toxic effects of cyanide on the body.

Table 2: Examples of Medical Products That Do Not Achieve Their Primary Intended Purposes through Chemical Action within or on the Body



Abdominal Adhesion Barrier

Inert, biodegradable synthetic polymers can be used to reduce post-operative adhesions with tissues and organs within the abdominal cavity. An implanted physical barrier sheet composed of such polymers would act to reduce adhesion through physical separation of tissue and not through pharmacological action on the surrounding tissue.

Polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA)

PMMA is an acrylate polymer that is used as a temporary bone spacer. PMMA is built from methyl methacrylate monomer units, which undergo free radical polymerization in the presence of an initiator compound. The molecules that are part of the polymerization process interact with each other to create a solid mass to fill a bone void physically. The process does not require an interaction between the PMMA and the bone at the molecular level and, therefore is not considered chemical action within or on the body.

Topical Surgical Adhesive

Cyanoacrylate is an acrylic resin that is used to approximate skin tissue as an adjunct to a wound closure product. The resin undergoes anionic polymerization in the presence of water. The chemical reaction that occurs between the resin and ions in the water allows it to form into long polymer chains. This type of adhesive can bond to a cut/incision, creating a physically-intact film to aid in keeping skin edges together. While the product binds to tissue, it does not exhibit pharmacological action because that binding does not mediate a bodily response.

Gold Nanoparticles

Nanoparticles composed of gold can be used to treat cancer. When gold nanoparticles are injected into a tumor site and exposed to electromagnetic energy, they absorb the electromagnetic energy and convert it to thermal energy, and this heat is transferred to the surrounding cells or tissue. The heat transfer, as opposed to a binding interaction with the nanoparticle, causes the cancer cells to die. Therefore, this effect is not achieved through chemical action.

Cryosurgery for Wart Removal

Cryogen (liquid gas), such as nitrogen or dimethyl ether, is used to treat common and plantar warts. The liquid gas is extremely cold and freezes the wart, resulting in damage to the topmost layer of cells. A physiological effect (i.e., cell death) results from heat transfer, not from a binding interaction with the gas. Therefore, the freezing is not considered chemical action.

Dental Amalgam

A resin that fills a cavity in a tooth as part of the treatment of dental caries may bind to the tooth via covalent bonding, or rely in part on intermolecular forces to change from liquid or paste to solid form. However, this binding and/or state change does not mediate a bodily response, but rather produces a solid mass, to fill the cavity. Therefore, it would not be considered chemical action.

Respirator Mask with Antimicrobial Filter

An antimicrobial product impregnated into a filter on a respirator mask to kill microbes that the user might otherwise inhale would exhibit pharmacological action. However, while the mask is in contact with the user’s face, the filter is not. So, the chemical action occurring on the filter is not occurring within or on the body.

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