In an era when we have access to a dizzying array of biologics for psoriasis treatment, it is easy to forget that topical therapies are still the bread and butter of treatment. For the majority of patients living with psoriasis, topical treatment is the only therapy they receive; indeed, a recent study examining a large national payer database found that 86% of psoriasis patients were managed with topical medications only.1 Thus, it is extremely important to understand how to optimize topical treatments, recognize pitfalls in management, and utilize newer agents that can been added to our treatment armamentarium for psoriasis.
In general, steroids have been the mainstay of topical treatment of psoriasis. Their broad anti-inflammatory activity works well against both the visible signs and symptoms of psoriasis as well as the underlying inflammatory milieu of the disease; however, these treatments are not without their downsides. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis suppression, especially in higher-potency topical steroids, is a serious concern that limits their use. In one study comparing lotion and cream formulations of clobetasol propionate, HPA axis suppression was seen in 80% (8/10) of adults in the lotion group and 30% (3/10) in the cream group after 4 weeks of treatment.2 These findings are not new; a 1987 study found that patients using less than 50 g of topical clobetasol per week, which is considered a low dose, could still exhibit HPA axis suppression.3 Severe HPA axis suppression may occur; one study of various topical steroids found some degree of HPA axis suppression in 38% (19/50) of patients, with a direct correlation with topical steroid potency.4 Additionally, cutaneous side effects such as striae formation, atrophy, and the possibility of tachyphylaxis must be considered. Various treatment regimens have been developed to limit topical steroid use, including steroid-sparing medications (eg, calcipotriene) used in conjunction with topical steroids, systemic treatments (eg, phototherapy) added on, or higher-potency topical steroids rotated with lower-potency steroids. Implementing other agents, such as topical retinoids or keratolytics, into the treatment regimen also is an important consideration in the overall approach to topical psoriasis therapy.
Notably, a number of newly approved topical treatments for psoriasis have emerged, and more are in the pipeline. When evaluating these agents, important considerations include safety, length of treatment course, and efficacy. Several of these agents hold promise for patients with psoriasis.