As the science of skin (dermatology) progressed, more information was understood about what this large organ is made of, how it works, and how to keep it healthy.
I won’t go into the skin anatomy today but one thing that was more or less universally accepted was: dry skin = bad skin. So in practice this meant that doctors prescribed patients to take baths and let our skin absorb lots of water and then get out, lightly pat dry, and apply the topical medication. An NEA webinar mentioned you need to get the topical medication on within 3 minutes of getting out of the water, which for a full grown adult with eczema over the entire body, proves to be a bit of a challenge.
So now let’s go more into the specifics about topical medications, let’s start with steroids. Topical steroids come in 7 classes: from Super Potent to Least Potent. A high potency topical steroid is one we’d put on our hands/feet/wrist/ankles or the areas that are more likely to have excessive thickening. A mid-strength topical steroid may be safer for the whole body but only for a 3–5 days for thin skin areas (around the eyes, mouth, genital areas). A low potency topical steroid includes the things you can get over the counter like hydrocortisone (1%).
A useful fact to keep in mind is you should know the name of the steroid you will/are using as well as the concentration (listed as a percentage). When in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to google up your specific steroid to see what strength it is if you are not sure, or ask your doctor.
Now for the more recent developments in the eczema world: the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (like Protopic and Elidel). Both are types of topical calcineurin-inhibitors (TCIs), which is a big term that just means they block T cells and stop the too much cytosine (a protein that can cause redness, inflammation, and itching) from being released. TCIs are great because they help the skin without decreasing the amount of healthy cells, and without going as deeply into the skin layers (unlike topical steroids, which cause thinning of the skin if used for a long time).
Protopic is usually stronger than Elidel, but both are often seen as medications to be used after you’ve finished the course of a mid-strength topical steroid, the reason being is that the TCIs can be used for longer periods of time. They are said to be safe to use around those thin-skinned areas, but that they generally don’t work on lichenified (or thickened) skin.
An even newer development was Eucrisa. This is a non-steroidal topical ointment that works by blocking an enzyme called phosphodiesterase (which is increased in immune cells of people with eczema), which then also blocks out the production of excessive cytokines. More research is still to come, but Eucrisa seems to be another promising non-steroidal option.
Lastly, let’s talk about topical corticosteroid (TCS) withdrawal (also known as topical steroid withdrawal or TSW). The health community is still hotly torn on this issue. On the one hand, in 2015 it was stated that the TCS withdrawal is a potential adverse effect of prolonged use of topical steroids, though it was said to be a rare occurrence with not a lot of evidence backing it, and that it was probably caused by topical steroids being used incorrectly. To be honest though, it seems it would be difficult not to have misused topical steroids in the past as the research behind how much to use and how often has changed over the years.
On the other side, there are organizations like the International Topical Steroid Addiction Network (ITSAN) or individuals like Dr. Rapaport that argue that the Red Skin Syndrome (RSS) is directly because of the topical steroid use/overuse/abuse in societies.
An interesting blog post I came across talked about how much cortisol a healthy body can normally produce, and how the commonly prescribed topical corticosteroids measure up. His analysis was that the potency of prescription steroids are often so much higher than what our bodies could naturally produce, which might explain why it seems so much more common to hear about people’s skins getting addicted. He was testing out how using very low potencies and/or low doses to mirror how much cortisol our bodies could normally produce, and see if that helped him maintain his skin throughout the winter.
Also food for thought, we know that studies are incredibly expensive to fund, and so to get a lot of evidence backing up TCS withdrawal or RSS, there would need to be big companies supporting the research. However, if these studies could then have results that jeopardize major supporters (like a pharmaceutical company), it becomes less likely any such companies will want to fund said studies. I’d bet it will be a while before we get a lot of evidence around more specifics of TCS withdrawal/RSS.
Carr WW. Topical Calcineurin Inhibitors for Atopic Dermatitis: Review and Treatment Recommendations. Pediatr Drugs. 2013 Aug;15(4):303-310.
Hajar T, Leshem YA, Hanifin JM, Nedorost ST, Lio PA, Paller AS, Block J, Simpson EL. A systematic review of topical corticosteroid withdrawal (“steroid addiction”) in patients with atopic dermatitis and other dermatoses. JAAD. 2015 Mar;72(3):543-549.e2.
Paller AS, Tom WL, Lebwohl MG, Blumenthal RL, Boguniewicz M, Call RS, Eichenfield LF, Forsha DW, Rees WC, Simpson EL, Spellman MC, Stein Gold LF, Zaenglein AL, Hughes MH, Zane LT, Hebert AA. Efficacy and safety of crisaborole ointment, a novel, nonsteroidal phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4) inhibitor for the topical treatment of atopic dermatitis (AD) in children and adults. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016 Sep;75(3):494-503.e6.