Topical acyclovir (ACV) in polyethylene glycol (PEG) ointment has been disappointing in the treatment of recurrent herpes simplex virus infections in immunocompetent patients. To investigate the possible role of poor drug delivery from this formulation, we studied the penetration of ACV through excised human skin from three vehicles; PEG ointment, modified aqueous cream, and dimethyl sulfoxide. A second antiviral agent, idoxuridine, was studied in the same formulations, and drug delivery through excised guinea pig skin was also assessed for comparison. The delivery of ACV from PEG ointment was very slow for both human and guinea pig skin (drug flux, 0.055 and 0.047 microgram/cm2 per h, respectively). Formulation of ACV in modified aqueous cream and in dimethyl sulfoxide resulted in an 8- and 60-fold increase, respectively, in the flux of ACV through human skin. Idoxuridine behaved similarly to ACV in the three vehicles. The poor clinical results seen with topical use of ACV ointment may be due in part to retarded drug delivery from this formulation.