What are my options for topical psoriasis treatments?

People have been using topical medications to treat psoriasis for over a century. There are many different topical treatment options available. Some have been around for more than a hundred years, such as coal tar and anthralin. Others, such as corticosteroids and salicylic acid, have been around for decades. And a few are newer, such as calcipotriol, calcipotriol/betamethasone, and tazarotene.

Psoriasis occurs when the body's T-cells (immune system cells designed to fight infections) become overactive. This leads to increased growth of the skin's outer layer. The new skin cells grow faster than they can be shed, forming scales. Topical medications – medications that are applied to the surface of the body – work by acting on different parts of this process.

Topical medication

How it works


Controls skin cell overgrowth

Calcipotriol/ betamethasone

Controls skin cell overgrowth/reduces inflammation and itching


Reduces inflammation, slows down skin cell growth

Salicylic acid

Softens up psoriasis scales so they are easier to remove


Believed to work by controlling skin cell overgrowth and reducing inflammation


Controls skin cell overgrowth

Coal tar

Controls skin cell overgrowth

Topical medications also differ in their side effects, how long it takes them to start working, and how long they should be used for. To learn more, read the next sections in this feature: "Treating psoriasis: It's all about timing," "Topical psoriasis treatments: What about side effects?" and "Questions to ask your doctor or pharmacist about psoriasis treatments."

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