Topical corticosteroids in plaque psoriasis: a systematic review of risk of adrenal axis suppression and skin atrophy

J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2012 May;26 Suppl 3:47-51. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-3083.2012.04523.x.


Background: Topical steroids have been used for more than 50 years in mild-to-moderate plaque psoriasis and carry a theoretical risk of adverse events.

Objectives: The aim of this systematic literature review was to evaluate the risk of hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression and the risk of skin atrophy with topical steroids in the treatment of plaque psoriasis.

Methods: A systematic search between 1980 and January 2011 in Medline, Embase and Cochrane databases (English, French language, adults), using the keywords 'psoriasis'/exp/mj AND 'corticosteroid'/exp/mj,

Results: Altogether 1269 references were found. Of these 1124 articles were excluded by reading the abstract and 123 by reading the article. A total of 22 randomized trials were selected. Effects on HPA axis: Thirteen studies, with a sample size varying from 7 to 341 patients, were selected. The effect on HPA axis was evaluated by the morning cortisol level (11 studies), the 24 h urine steroid levels (five studies) and/or by the Synacthen test (three studies). Reduction of morning cortisol was observed in 0-25% of patients in 10 short-term studies (two in scalp psoriasis, eight in body psoriasis) and in 48% of patients in the remaining short-term study (body psoriasis). Only four of these studies with three on body psoriasis evaluated the effect of long-term treatment defined as 6-month treatment duration or longer and did not identify HPA axis suppression by cortisol level measurement. The Synacthen test, considered as the gold standard to assess HPA axis, was always normal. There was no evidence of clinically significant HPA axis suppression due to absorption of topical steroids even when treating the scalp or in patients with extensive disease. Risk of skin atrophy: Thirteen studies with topical steroid evaluating treatment durations from 4 weeks to 1 year were analysed. The frequency of skin atrophy assessed clinically, varied from 0% to 5% of patients.

Conclusions: The literature analysis on topical steroids in psoriasis is reassuring although the quality of safety studies is limited with a majority of short-term studies. Although short-term biological effects of topical steroids on the HPA axis were observed in several clinical studies, they were not associated with clinical signs. Adequately designed long-term studies would be necessary to better determine the risk of skin atrophy using modern methods of evaluation such as dermoscopy and echography.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Topical
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / administration & dosage
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / pharmacology
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use*
  • Adrenal Glands / drug effects*
  • Adrenal Glands / physiopathology
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / drug effects
  • Male
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / drug effects
  • Psoriasis / drug therapy*
  • Skin / drug effects*


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Hydrocortisone