Topical Medications for Psoriasis
Medications applied directly to the skin are the first course of treatment options. The main topical treatments are corticosteroids, vitamin D-3 derivatives, coal tar, anthralin, or retinoids. For more detailed information on each medication, see Understanding Psoriasis Medications. Generic drug names are listed below with examples of brands in parentheses.
- Corticosteroids: Clobetasol (Temovate), fluocinolone (Synalar), and betamethasone (Diprolene) are commonly prescribed corticosteroids. These creams or ointments are usually applied once or twice a day, but the dose depends on the severity of the psoriasis, and the location and
thickness of the plaque. Topical corticosteroids are the mainstay of treatment in mild or limited psoriasis and come in a variety of forms. Foams and solutions are best for scalp psoriasis and other thickly hair-bearing areas such as a hairy chest or hairy back. Creams are usually preferred by patients, but ointments are more potent than any other vehicles, even at the same percentage concentration. While it is best to use stronger, superpotent corticosteroids on thicker plaques, one should usually use milder steroids in skin folds (inverse psoriasis) and on the genitals. Commonly, patients who
are using one or more of the systemic agents discussed below will still require some use of topical corticosteroids for resistant areas and "hot spots." Occasionally, when there is concern about the long-term use of a potent topical corticosteroid, pulse methods may be used with one of the vitamin D or A analogs discussed below. An example would be to use the nonsteroid topical agent (or a milder corticosteroid) during the week and more potent steroid on the weekends.
Picture of genital psoriasis. Image courtesy of Jeffrey J. Meffert, MD.
Picture of inverse psoriasis affecting the armpit. Image courtesy of Jeffrey J. Meffert, MD.
- Vitamin D: Calcipotriene (Dovonex) is a form of vitamin D-3 and slows the production of excess skin cells. It is used in the treatment of moderate psoriasis. This cream, ointment, or solution is applied to the skin two times a day. Calcipotriene combined with the betamethasone dipropionate (Taclonex) flattens lesions, removes scale, and reduces inflammation and is available as an ointment and a solution. As is the case with many combination medications, it may be much less expensive to apply the individual components sequentially than a single application of a pre-packaged mixture. Calcitriol ointment (Silkis, Vectical) contains calcitriol, which binds to the vitamin D receptors on skin cells and reduces the excessive production of skin cells, which helps to improve psoriasis. Calcitriol ointment should be applied to the affected areas of skin twice a day.
- Coal Tar: Coal tar (DHS Tar, Doak Tar, Theraplex T) contains literally thousands of different substances that are extracted from the coal carbonization process. Coal tar is applied topically and is available as shampoo, bath oil, ointment, cream, gel, lotion, ointment, paste, and other types of preparations. The tar decreases itching and slows the production of excess skin cells and is especially useful when used with or combined with a topical corticosteroid.
- Corticosteroids: Clobetasol (Temovate), fluocinolone (Synalar), and betamethasone (Diprolene) are commonly prescribed corticosteroids. These creams or ointments are usually applied twice a day, but the dose depends on the severity of the psoriasis.
- Tree Bark Extract: Anthralin (Dithranol, Anthra-Derm, Drithocreme) is considered to be one of the most effective antipsoriatic agents available. It does have potential to cause skin irritation and staining of clothing and skin. Apply the cream, ointment, or paste sparingly to the patches on the skin. On the scalp, rub into affected areas. Avoid the forehead, eyes, and any skin that does not have patches. Do not apply excessive quantities.
- Topical retinoid: Tazarotene (Tazorac) is a topical retinoid that is available as a gel or cream. Tazarotene reduces the size of the patches and the redness of the skin. This medicine is sometimes combined with corticosteroids to decrease skin irritation and to increase effectiveness. Tazarotene is particularly useful for psoriasis of the scalp. Apply a thin film to the affected skin every day or as instructed. Dry skin before using this medicine. Irritation may occur when applied to damp skin. Wash hands after application. Do not cover with a bandage. Tretinoin (Retin-A) does not work as well for psoriasis as it does for acne.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/15/2014
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