What Are Over-The-Counter (OTC) Treatments?
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2024
Over-the-counter (OTC) topicals are treatments for psoriasis that are available without a prescription. You can buy them at a pharmacy, grocery store, or online. OTC topicals go directly on the skin. OTC topicals may be in the form of lotions, foams, shampoos, or ointments.1,2
OTC treatments are often treatment options for people with only mild psoriasis. However, anyone with psoriasis can benefit from moisturizers.1,2
How do over-the-counter treatments work?
The way OTC treatments work depends on the specific treatment. Some work by reducing inflammation or skin cell growth. Others work by increasing moisture in the skin. For some treatments, researchers do not yet understand exactly how they work.1,2
Examples of over-the-counter treatments
There are many different types of OTC treatments for psoriasis. Some main types include:1-3
- Moisturizers – These products help seal water in the skin. This prevents dryness and helps your skin heal. Choose a heavy cream, ointment, or oil, and avoid products with fragrance.
- Hydrocortisone creams and ointments – Hydrocortisone is a mild corticosteroid. If you have more serious psoriasis, your doctor may recommend a different prescription corticosteroid.
- Anthralin cream – Anthralin is a cream that treats psoriasis. Wear gloves when applying anthralin because it can stain the skin.
- Coal tar – This is an active ingredient in many psoriasis treatments. Coal tar helps slow skin cell growth and reduces inflammation.
- Salicylic acid scale softeners – Salicylic acid causes the outer skin layer to shed. This helps soften and remove psoriasis scales. It is a type of treatment called a keratolytic. This is also known as a peeling agent or scale lifter. Other less common keratolytics include lactic acid, urea, or phenol.
- Anti-itch products – These products do not treat psoriasis but can help treat the itch. Examples include calamine, camphor, or menthol.
Of these treatments, only salicylic acid and coal tar are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as treatments for psoriasis. However, that does not mean the other treatments are not still helpful.1
What are the possible side effects of over-the-counter treatments?
Side effects can vary depending on the specific drug you are taking. In general, most topical treatments can cause skin irritation. Irritation can cause dry, itchy, and red skin. This is especially true if you have a sensitivity to an ingredient, like fragrance in a moisturizer.1-3
Coal tar can be especially irritating for some people. It can help to apply the product on a small test area before using it. This shows how your skin will react before using a lot of it. Coal tar can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Use sun protection if using coal tar.1,2
These are not all the possible side effects of over-the-counter treatments. Talk to your doctor about what to expect when using over-the-counter treatments. You also should call your doctor if you have any changes that concern you when using over-the-counter treatments.
Other things to know
There are other at-home treatments for mild psoriasis that you can try without a prescription. For example, adding oil, oatmeal, Epsom salts, or Dead Sea salts to a bath may soothe your skin. But always use moisturizer after baths, showers, or washing your hands.1
Talk to your doctor about any OTC treatments you are using for psoriasis. Before beginning treatment for psoriasis, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you take.