Corticosteroid medications are derivatives of corticosteroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands, and they are available in topical, oral and injectable form. One function of corticosteroids is controlling inflammatory responses, making the ointments and creams useful for relieving symptoms of eczema, psoriasis and dermatitis 1. NetDoctor explains that topical corticosteroids should not be used for treating acne 12.
Perhaps the best-known topical corticosteroid is hydrocortisone, the same hormone as cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands. Numerous synthetic corticosteroids have been developed as well, such as betamethasone, fluticasone and mometasone 1. They are available under various brand names, including Alphaderm, Durmacort, Dermovate and Timodine, in varying degrees of strength. The more potent corticosteroids are prescription-only 1. Corticosteroids are different from anabolic steroids, which are related to male hormones and promote muscle growth and strength 1.
Skin cells absorb topical corticosteroids 1. The medicine then prevents these cells from producing inflammation-causing chemicals when the skin reacts to allergens or irritants, or when it displays symptoms of an autoimmune condition such as psoriasis. Corticosteroids do not cure the condition, explains NetDoctor, but they control flare-ups and relieve swelling, itching and redness 1.
Corticosteroid cream does not work for treating acne 2. As noted by a study published in Volume 65, No. 5 of "Acta Dermato Venerologica" in 1989, for instance, the very potent topical corticosteroid clobetasol propionate had no significant effects on 11 patients with moderate acne over three weeks of use. Measurement criterion was the number of pimples at the beginning of treatment compared with the number at the end.
Additionally, corticosteroid creams can actually cause acne and worsen existing acne. Physician Lawrence S. Neinstein at the University of Southern California uses a photo example of steroid acne in a dermatology quiz, in which a teen developed acne in an obvious pattern corresponding to application of the steroid cream she used for another skin problem 3.
Instead of corticosteroid cream, look for topical products containing benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid or sulfur, recommends the American Academy of Dermatology 2. These substances are available over the counter in gels, lotions and other preparations. The active ingredients work in different ways, and while you may find that one is more effective for you than another, all are proven effective for treating mild to moderate acne.