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Anyone who takes insulin regularly surely knows the unique, wet-smack sound of a shattering vial. At roughly $300 a pop these days, losing a vial of this life-sustaining “liquid gold” is a calamity of the worst kind.
If only you had used some sort of vial protector, then dropping it would be nothing more than a minor inconvenience, causing you to merely laugh at your clumsiness, and to bend down and pick up the precious vial you just fumble-fingered.
What about these so-called insulin vial protector products, though? Are they really any good? How much protection do they actually offer? Some have been around for years, while new kids on the block keep appearing.
Each features different solutions for protecting insulin from destructive accidents, while at the same time providing varied access to the vial for site changes or bolus doses. So how’s a person with diabetes (PWD) to choose?
To help you sort this out, we took five top contenders into the DiabetesMine Materials Testing Lab to find out.
OK, DiabetesMine doesn’t really have a dedicated testing lab. Instead, we set up in an airplane hangar. This may seem an odd place to test-drop vials of insulin ensconced in various protectors, but the location has two major features that made it perfect for the task.
First, the floor is rock hard. Literally. The concrete floor is covered in Rust-Oleum RockSolid — a smooth, glassy, polycuramine coating that makes it an ideal proxy for the tile and marble commonly found on bathroom floors, without the variable of grout lines or joints. In other words, it’s a ginormous piece of tile.
Second, hangars also have high ceilings, and this one is about 14 feet. How on earth could an insulin vial be accidentally dropped from 14 feet? Well, you never know, and we really wanted to discover which vial protector provided the ultimate protection.
Not being crazy, of course we didn’t use real insulin for our tests. Instead, we used empty Humalog and Novolog vials, refilled with water and pressure-equalized to simulate half-used vials. We chose partly full over full, as an insulin vial is only full once, and at the other end of the spectrum, once it’s empty, it wouldn’t matter if it broke. We felt 50 percent was representative of typical status, and would mimic the fluid dynamics of a real drop, should there be any hydraulic effects that might be involved in over-stressing the vial during impact.
For drop protocol, each protector — with insulin vial onboard — was dropped three times from each target height. The first drop was horizontal. Next, we dropped the protected vial neck-end down. Lastly, we dropped each protected vial butt-end down. Of course, some of the protectors caused the vials to tumble in different ways, so direct impact on the tile surface wasn’t guaranteed.
As to drop height, we started at 3 feet — a typical countertop height, then added three more feet for each test: 6 feet, 9 feet, and finally 12 feet. What happened? Read on.
A note on price
Generally, prices for these vial protectors range from $9 to $20, though this may vary depending on where you shop and whether you’re getting a multipack deal.
Price ranges are noted here with dollar signs ($ to $$$) as indicated below. One dollar sign means the product is rather affordable, whereas three dollar signs indicate the higher end.
- $ = under $10
- $$ = $11–$15
- $$$ = over $15
- Made by: Cosita Bonita, which also sells jewelry, art, planters, and purse hooks on Etsy.
- Price: $$$, with free shipping in the U.S.
- Construction: The Cosita Bonita (Spanish roughly translating into Pretty Thing-a-ma-jig) is a thin, two-piece protector made of flexible soft plastic. It’s clearly 3D printed, with a side window that — if you rotate the vial properly when inserting it — allows the user to see the level of insulin remaining in the vial. The lid slides tightly down inside the body, holds the vial snugly in place, and has a hole that allows insulin to be drawn out without removing the lid. It’s compact, pocketable, and small enough that it could be slipped into a temperature control device like the popular Frío case.
- Drop test results: The Cosita product successfully protected its contents throughout the full 12-drop series — three each from 3-feet high, 6-feet high, 9-feet high, and 12-feet high. We were impressed, to say the least, especially as the Cosita doesn’t look all that impressive at first glance. Clearly, part of its success is due to the soft plastic it’s printed out of. When dropped, the Cosita silently bounces. From 12 feet, it bounced back into the air a full two feet. Additionally, the slightly raised lip in the lid protected the metal top of the vial, even when it struck neck-end down.
- Made by: Securitee Blanket, owned by Regato Enterprises LTD.
- Price: $
- Construction: This product is a fabric-covered thin foam tube with an open top and a flexible sewn bottom. While insulin can be drawn from the vial while it rests inside, there’s no way to check the level of the fluid remaining without removing the vial. Available in lime green, purple, red, and royal blue, Securitee Blanket claims their product allows for a “more secure grip” on the vial. Like the Cosita, it could easily be carried in a Frío, or other cooler. (Note: Our test Blanket was the “long” model, technically designed for the taller Lantus vial, as we couldn’t find the “short” version designed for rapid-acting vials online.)
- Drop test results: The Securitee Blanket product also protected its vial successfully for the full battery of tests. It also bounces on impact, but not in the same stealthy way the Cosita did. Instead, there is a resounding thunk when it hits. Still, it did the job.
- Made by: Vial Safe
- Price: $$ for a pair
- Construction: Made of soft rubbery silicone — in milky clear, pink, light blue, navy, or green — the Vial Safe wraps tightly around the vial like a second skin. It has an open top that allows insulin to be drawn out without removing the vial. There’s a large open area between the top and bottom that allows PWDs to easily identify which insulin is inside, and how much fluid is left in the vial. Like both the Cosita and the Securitee, the Vial Safe can be easily carried in a Frío. Vial Safe has been around since at least 2012, and the product sports a 4-and-a-half star average in online reviews. Their motto is “Love at First Drop.”
- Drop test results: Like the stealthy Cosita, the Vial Safe serves as a silencer at lower drop heights, although by 9 feet there is a soft thwap noise on impact. Vial Safe also bounces — most vigorously! Of course, these leaps back into the air help dissipate the impact forces, shielding the glass from destruction, and the Vial Safe safely protected its contents throughout the entire series.
- Made by: T1D3DGear, which sells a variety of diabetes storage products on Etsy.
- Price: $$$
- Construction: The Vial Vessel is a heavy, somewhat bulky, rigid plastic 3D-printed case. It reminded me of a military tank: Armored to the teeth. The Vessel features a wide base with foam both inside the base and inside the lid. We found that the Novolog vial — which is ever so wider and shorter than a Humalog vial — would NOT fit into the Vessel, at least not without a hammer, which would defeat the Vessel’s purpose of course. There are several slots in the barrel that allow you to see the level of insulin, but the lid must be unscrewed to draw insulin out of the vial. The thick walls and wide base make it impractical to carry the Vessel in a Frío case. On the fun factor front, however, the Vial Vessel is available in a crazy range of colors. We chose the glow-in-the-dark plastic and were delighted by how bright it was. You’d never lose your insulin in the dark with this product.
- Drop test results: Testing the Vial Vessel products created an unusual problem for the team. As both Vessels feature a screw-off cap, should we drop test cap-on or cap-off? In the real world, a dropped vial could happen in either case, so we decided to drop each Vessel cap-on first, and then cap-off, at each height. From the initial drop, these tank-like protectors were different, letting off alarming gunshot-like retorts when striking the floor. The two-piece unit protected the vial from a 3-foot drop with the lid on, but trouble started with the lid off, even at low altitude. The neck-down 3-foot drop resulted in a dent in the metal collar; and the butt-down 3-foot drop actually ejected the vial from the Vessel. While in real life, this would be a heart attack moment, the vial survived this James Bond-esque event, so the Vessel did its job. Again, at 6 feet, with both the horizontal and neck-down drops, the vial was ejected, perhaps due to a spring-like action between the vial and the protective foam in the base. But once again, the vial survived these adventures. Starting with the 9-foot drops, the base of the Vial Vessel began to de-laminate, and many structural cracks began to appear throughout the structure. The 9-foot cap-off butt-down drop once again resulted in a flying vial, but once again, the vial miraculously survived this secondary drop. But the party ended at 12-feet, and oddly enough, with a lid-on drop. On the butt-down 12-foot drop, the vial practically exploded inside the Vessel. The base of the vial blew out, and like a hydraulic rocket, the vial pushed the screw-top lid clean off the Vessel. The foam inside the lid bore an embossed imprint of the top of the vial.
- Made by: T1D3DGear
- Price: $$$
- Construction: An alternate construction to the 2-piece model above, the company also offers a three-part Vial Vessel, and we were curious to compare the two. Like the two-piece version, there’s foam in the base and in the lid — which also has to be removed to draw insulin. The 3-piece Vessel shares the same thick, solid, massive construction of the two piece, but with a barrel that looks more cage-like. We found that we could insert both Humalog and Novolog into the barrel. There are multiple color choices, and you can order each of the three pieces in different colors to make an array of fun combos. BTW, T1D3DGear is the brainchild of a D-dad and “looper,” so a portion of their proceeds are donated to the Nightscout Foundation. They also make a line of RileyLink cases, plus, new for COVID-19, they’ve introduced 3D-printed hands-free door openers. They promise to “treat you better than your pancreas does.”
- Drop test results: The 3-piece Vial Vessel differs from its 2-piece cousin in that, rather than stuffing the vial in from the top like a ball into a musket, the vial is inserted from the base, with its tip poking out through an aperture at the top. This construction guaranteed that there would be no vial ejections on dropping like we saw with the 2-piece unit. That said, this added level of “protection” actually led to an earlier failure — albeit a less dramatic one. The 3-foot cap-on drops were uneventful beyond the gunshot-like retorts as the Vessel bounced off the floor. The neck-down 3-foot drop with the cap off resulted in a dented metal top, but the vial survived. The 6-foot horizontal drop blew a chip off the base of the Vessel. The 6-foot neck-down drop was uneventful, but the next drop was fatal for the vial. The 6-foot butt-down cap-on drop shattered the base of the Vessel and badly cracked the vial itself. Perhaps the snugger fit of the solid 3-piece device protector didn’t allow the impact forces to dissipate; regardless, it was the poorest performance of this series of tests.
With three of these protectors passing the 12-foot test, we decided to go for the ultimate challenge and headed up to the rooftop. This time we’d be dropping onto asphalt, from approximately 24 feet up. In fairness, not what any of these protectors was designed for. Still, in the interest of science…
The results? The Securitee Blanket survived the first two drops from the roof, the horizontal and the neck-down, but imploded on the butt-end drop. The other two — the Cosita Bonita and the rubbery Vial Safe — largely passed the 24-foot challenge. We say “largely” as one of the extreme drops in the Vial Safe resulted in a badly dented metal vial top. Still, the insulin vial didn’t break, but as there was some damage. So overall, we declared the seemingly indestructible Cosita to be the winner of the Ultimate Drop Challenge.
To be fair, we took these tests to extremes. All of the products successfully protected their contents from the typical height that vials are dropped from — and most of them protected from even greater heights than they would probably face in daily D-life.
All are reusable, although the hard-plastic models are more susceptible to damage like chips and cracks. Three of the five are compact enough to be carried in Frío wallets, although you may not need that functionality.
The T1D3DGear Vial Vessel protectors offer the best fun factor of mix-and-match bright colors or glow-in-the-dark plastic — although we think having to unscrew the lid for use each time would get tedious.
The Securitee Blanket product got demerits from the team for not offering any visibility to judge the volume remaining in the vial, or even confirming it’s the proper vial, in the case of multiple daily injection therapy where more than one type of insulin is used.
But any one of them will do the job they claim to do. And while the prices vary, compared to the cost of insulin — or the difficulty of getting replacement vials even for the well-insured — we think that even the most expensive vial protector is very cheap insurance indeed.