Corticosteroids (topical) 


Corticosteroids and anabolic steroids

The steroids contained in topical corticosteroids should not be confused with the sort of steroids sometimes used (illegally) by bodybuilders and athletes. These are called anabolic steroids.

Anabolic steroids contain a type of hormone that helps stimulate tissue growth, particularly muscle tissue. If used correctly, topical corticosteroids do not have any effect on muscle growth or development.

Read more about anabolic steroid abuse.

Topical corticosteroid is a term refering to any sort of cream, gel or ointment containing corticosteroids. You may have heard them called ‘steroid creams’.

Topical corticosteroids are widely used to treat inflammatory skin conditions such as atopic eczema and psoriasis.

Their main purpose is to reduce skin inflammation and irritation. They cannot cure the conditions that trigger these symptoms, but they can provide temporary relief during a particularly bad flare-up of symptoms.

Read more about when topical corticosteroids are used and how topical corticosteroids work.

For information about steroid tablets and sprays, see our page on corticosteroids.

Types of topical corticosteroids

There are five main types of topical corticosteroids:

  • solutions – water- or alcohol-based liquids that are non-greasy and easy to apply, but they can sometimes dry out the skin 
  • lotions – similar to solutions but thicker; they are often recommended to treat larger areas of skin or hairy areas 
  • creams – thicker than lotions and often recommended when the affected skin has become moist or is weeping
  • ointments – liquids containing high levels of oil, which can make them greasy; they are usually recommended to treat skin that has become dry and scaly
  • gels – a more solidified, jelly-like substance, often used to treat areas of the body that are very hairy, such as the scalp

Topical corticosteroids are also available in different strengths. The strength is determined by the amount of steroids the medicine contains. They can be:

  • mild
  • moderate
  • potent
  • very potent

Read more about dosage of topical corticosteroids.

Your GP will usually prescribe the lowest strength of corticosteroid necessary to control your symptoms. This reduces the risk of any adverse side effects, such as the skin:

  • thinning 
  • becoming more vulnerable to infection
  • changing colour

Read more about the side effects of topical corticosteroids.


If used as directed, topical corticosteroids are a very safe treatment. Serious side effects usually only occur if excessive amounts of potent or very potent corticosteroids are applied.

However, there are some things to consider while taking topical corticosteroids.

High levels of potent topical corticosteroids can disrupt the hormonal balance in the body, leading to side effects, such as:

Page last reviewed: 11/12/2012

Next review due: 11/12/2014


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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

X5232WM said on 19 January 2014

I had a bad flare up of piles, I used all the over count creams but they made no difference. I was prescribed corticosteroid cream which I used a for about 3 days, this did work and the piles shrunk to small internal piles which caused no discomfort, however since using this cream I have passed allot of fresh blood when having my bowels open. I can only assume this is because the cream may have thinned the skin of the piles which have made them more prone to bleeding, I have never had this amount of bleeding ever and I was diagnosed with pile 10 years ago. I would suggest caution if using this cream as you may no longer have pain, discomfort and external piles but the bleeding is unpleasant and can be alarming.

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