Topical steroids

Author: Dr Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, 1997. Updated 4 January 2016.

What are topical steroids?

Topical steroids are safe and effective anti-inflammatory preparations used to control eczema/dermatitis and many other skin conditions. They are available in creams, ointments, solutions and other vehicles.

Topical steroids are sometimes combined with other active ingredients, including antibacterial agents, antifungal agents and calcipotriol.

Topical steroids are also called topical corticosteroids, glucocorticosteroids, and cortisones.

Background information

The effects of topical steroids on various cells in the skin are:

Potency of topical steroids

The potency of topical steroids depends on:

There is little point in diluting a topical steroid, as their potency does not depend much on concentration. After the first 2 or 3 applications, there is no additional benefit from applying a topical steroid more than once daily.

Steroids are absorbed at different rates depending on skin thickness.

Absorption also depends on the vehicle in which the topical steroid is delivered and is greatly enhanced by occlusion.

Formulations

Several formulations are available to suit the type of skin lesion and its location. Creams and lotions are general purpose and are the most popular formulations.

Ointment

Gel or solution

As a general rule, use the weakest possible steroid that will do the job. It is often appropriate to use a potent preparation for a short time to ensure the skin condition clears completely.

Which topical steroids are available in New Zealand?

Topical steroids are medicines regulated by Health Authorities. They are classified according to their strength. The products listed here are those available in New Zealand in January 2016.

Very potent or superpotent (up to 600 times as potent as hydrocortisone)
  • Clobetasol propionate
  • Betamethasone dipropionate
Potent (100–150 times as potent as hydrocortisone)
  • Betamethasone valerate
  • Betamethasone dipropionate
  • Diflucortolone valerate
  • Hydrocortisone 17-butyrate
  • Mometasone furoate
  • Methylprednisolone aceponate
Moderate (2–25 times as potent as hydrocortisone)
  • Clobetasone butyrate
  • Triamcinolone acetonide
Mild
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Hydrocortisone acetate

What are the side effects of topical steroids?

Side effects are uncommon or rare when topical steroids are used appropriately under medical supervision. Topical steroids may be falsely blamed for a sign when underlying disease or another condition is responsible (eg hypopigmentation, which is in fact post-inflammatory).

Cushing syndrome

Internal side effects similar to those due to systemic steroids (Cushing syndrome) are rarely reported from topical steroids, and only after long-term use of large quantities of topical steroid (eg > 50 g of clobetasol propionate or > 500 g of hydrocortisone per week).

Cutaneous side effects

Local side effects of topical steroids may arise when potent topical steroids are applied daily for long periods of time (months). Most reports of side effects describe prolonged use of unnecessarily potent topical steroids for inappropriate indications.

Topical steroids can cause, aggravate or mask skin infections, eg impetigo, tinea, herpes simplex, malassezia folliculitis and molluscum contagiosum. Note: topical steroids remain the first-line treatment for infected eczema.

Potent topical steroids applied for weeks to months or longer can lead to:

Stinging frequently occurs when a topical steroid is first applied, due to underlying inflammation and broken skin. Contact allergy to steroid molecule, preservative or vehicle is uncommon, but may occur after the first application of the product or after many years of its use.

Ocular side effects

Topical steroids should be used cautiously on eyelid skin. Potentially, their excessive use over weeks to months might lead to glaucoma or cataracts.

Topical steroids in pregnancy

Mild and moderate-potency topical steroids can be safely used in pregnancy. Caution should be used for potent and ultrapotent topical steroids used over large areas or under occlusion. Reports of low birthweight infants exposed to high-dose topical steroids are not thought to be due to the medication. 

How to use topical steroids

Topical steroid is applied once daily (usually at night) to inflamed skin for a course of 5 days to several weeks. After that, it is usually stopped, or the strength or frequency of application is reduced.

Emollients can be applied before or after the application of topical steroid, to relieve irritation and dryness or as a barrier preparation. Infection may need additional treatment.

Fingertip units

Fingertip units guide the amount of topical steroid to be applied to a body site. One unit describes the amount of cream squeezed out of its tube onto the volar aspect of the terminal phalanx of the index finger.

The quantity of cream in a fingertip unit varies with age:

The amount of cream that should be used varies with the body part:

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