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Corticosteroids, Dermatologic

Overview :

All dermatologic steroids are based on the natural hormone hydrocortisone, but most have been subject to chemical modification to increase their effectiveness. While many chemical changes to the original molecule will increase the anti-inflammatory effects, the best known is halogenation, replacing one or more of the carbon atoms in the molecule with an atom of fluorine or, less often, chlorine. This change increases the anti-inflammatory effects of the steroid but also increases the risk of some adverse effects.

Topical steroids are usually classed by their potency, ranging from very high to low potency. The most powerful steroids include clobetasol propionate, diflorasone diacetate, and halobetasol propionate. The high and medium potency group includes betamethasone valerate, desoximetasone, fluocininide, halcinonide, and fluandrenolide. Low potency topical steroids include desonide, dexamethasone, fluocinolone acetate, and hydrocortisone.

Topical steroids are particularly affected by their vehicle, which can alter the potency of the product and is particularly important in view of the parts of the body being treated. Lotions are liquid at room temperature and are usually the best choice for application to hairy areas of the body since they can easily reach past the hair. Creams are semi-solid and appropriate for application to most areas. They are usually designed to disappear and leave no sticky residue. This feature makes them appropriate for areas such as the palms of the hands, the face, or areas that are in direct contact with clothing. Ointments are thicker than creams and tend to stay on the skin longer than creams. Pastes are particularly thick ointments, often containing a powder such as zinc oxide, and may be used where a protective effect is needed.

Because of variations in skin thickness, it is essential to match the potency of the steroid with the area being treated. Areas of thick skin may require a very potent steroid in order to penetrate the outer layer of skin. In areas where the skin is thin, a high potency steroid may increase the risk of serious adverse reactions.

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