The role of stratum corneum and dermal microvascular perfusion in penetration and tissue levels of water-soluble drugs investigated by microdialysis

Br J Dermatol. 2003 Mar;148(3):434-43. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2133.2003.05163.x.


Background: Hydrophilic drugs are poorly absorbed when applied topically, due to low partitioning through the lipid matrix of the stratum corneum. Cutaneous blood flow rapidly clears the absorbed drug, which may result in low tissue levels. This is of importance for topically applied drugs whose site of action is within the epidermis or dermis. Dermal drug levels can be measured using cutaneous microdialysis, which is a means of continuously sampling substances from the dermal extracellular fluid.

Objectives: To measure the contribution of stratum corneum barrier and microvascular perfusion in determining dermal tissue levels of hydrophilic drugs (aciclovir and penciclovir) in vivo.

Methods: Studies were performed using microdialysis of the volar surface of the forearm of healthy volunteers (n = 55) over a 5-h collection period. Stratum corneum was removed by tape stripping, and barrier disruption quantified by measurement of transepidermal water loss (TEWL); dermal microvascular perfusion was modulated by inclusion of noradrenaline in the microdialysis perfusate.

Results: With intact skin and normal cutaneous blood flow the concentration of penciclovir recovered was below assay threshold (0.05 ng x mL(-1). With noradrenaline-induced local vasoconstriction, the area under the curve of drug absorbed through normal skin (+/- SEM) was 13.3 +/- 2.9 ng mL(-1) h(0-5) for penciclovir and 27.6 +/- 10.6 ng mL(-1) h(0-5) for aciclovir. Removal of the stratum corneum (to glistening) by tape stripping increased penciclovir absorption by 1300-fold and aciclovir absorption by 440-fold, confirming the stratum corneum as the major barrier to hydrophilic drug absorption. Sequential barrier disruption by tape stripping gave a close correlation between penciclovir concentration absorbed per hour and barrier disruption measured by TEWL (r2 = 0.9283). There was a 15.6-fold difference in the recovery of penciclovir through barrier-deficient skin with and without cutaneous blood flow. There was no relationship between fibre depth and amount of drug dialysed, which suggests free movement of antiviral drug on reaching the aqueous environment of the dermis.

Conclusions: This study defines for the first time the relationship between the degree of mechanical barrier impairment and drug absorption at the same anatomical site in humans, and the role of blood flow in drug clearance in vivo.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acyclovir / administration & dosage
  • Acyclovir / analogs & derivatives*
  • Acyclovir / pharmacokinetics*
  • Administration, Topical
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Antiviral Agents / administration & dosage
  • Antiviral Agents / pharmacokinetics*
  • Dermis / blood supply
  • Epidermis / physiology
  • Female
  • Guanine
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microdialysis / methods
  • Middle Aged
  • Skin / blood supply
  • Skin / metabolism*
  • Skin Absorption / drug effects
  • Solubility
  • Water Loss, Insensible


  • Antiviral Agents
  • penciclovir
  • Guanine
  • Acyclovir