Terpene penetration enhancers in propylene glycol/water co-solvent systems: effectiveness and mechanism of action

J Pharm Pharmacol. 1995 Dec;47(12A):978-89. doi: 10.1111/j.2042-7158.1995.tb03282.x.


The effects of propylene glycol/water co-solvent systems and terpene penetration enhancers (1,8-cineole, menthone, (+)-limonene and nerolidol) on the absorption rate of the model hydrophilic permeant, 5-fluorouracil, were investigated using excised human skin. Similar fluxes for 5-fluorouracil were obtained from saturated enhancer-free co-solvent systems. Co-application of each terpene with the drug, both at saturation, in propylene glycol co-solvent systems increased drug flux significantly. Terpene activity depended on the propylene glycol content in the vehicles. Maximum fluxes were obtained from formulations containing the terpenes in 80% propylene glycol systems (highest concentration used), which when normalized to the flux from the pure vehicles yielded enhancement ratios of about 24, 21, 4 and 18, with 1,8-cineole, menthone, (+)-limonene and nerolidol, respectively. Combining the permeation studies with differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) and partitioning experiments revealed that increased lipid disruption is probably an important mechanism involved in the enhancing ability of formulations containing 1,8-cineole, menthone and nerolidol. This was clearly demonstrated by applying thermodynamic principles to interpret DSC results. This approach has indicated that these terpenes are probably able to disrupt stratum corneum lipids at physiological temperature as manifested by reductions in the entropy changes associated with the lipid-related transitions, particularly T2, the first major lipid transition. Additionally, increased drug partitioning contributed to the effect of the high propylene glycol content formulations. (+)-Limonene, as interpreted from DSC results, produced a freezing point-depression effect on stratum corneum lipids, suggesting little interaction with lipids at skin temperature; its small enhancement effect may involve phase separation of the oil in stratum corneum lipids. Terpenes in co-solvent systems such as propylene glycol/water at appropriate propylene glycol content might thus be useful vehicles for the delivery of drugs from topical formulations.

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacokinetics*
  • Cell Membrane Permeability / drug effects
  • Chemical Phenomena
  • Chemistry, Physical
  • Fluorouracil / pharmacokinetics*
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Propylene Glycols / pharmacology*
  • Skin Absorption / drug effects*
  • Solubility
  • Solvents
  • Terpenes / pharmacology*
  • Water / pharmacology*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Propylene Glycols
  • Solvents
  • Terpenes
  • Water
  • Fluorouracil