How Long Is It Safe to Use Cortisone on the Face?

Cynthia Bailey, MD|October 22, 2012

ask a dermatologist skin care questionsHello Dr. Bailey, I've been reading your columns about rosacea and have ordered your Replenix CF cream. You mentioned using Locoid Ointment with the Replenix. I would like to know if it's safe to use Locoid Ointment indefinitely. Thanks, Freya W. Hello Freya, No, it's definitely NOT safe to use cortisone on the face indefinitely. Cortisone creams, ointments, gels, foams, and solutions are medicines, and all medicines have side effects. Even over-the-counter cortisone products are medicines with side effects. That said, topical cortisone is also a near-miracle when inflammation is causing havoc on your skin. It is, however, not a long-term fix, because there are cortisone dangers of which you need to be aware. Our goal is always to control rashes using treatments and skin care that don't have side effects. We then use cortisone as an emergency treatment to control inflammation. What are the dangers of applying cortisone indefinitely to your skin? Steroid atrophy. All cortisone topical medicines, even low-potency ones like Locoid, will eventually thin the skin. It's called steroid trophy. It is reversible at first, but eventually the thinning can become permanent. Steroid atrophy of the skin is seen as skin wrinkling, "broken capillaries," and skin weakness. On non-facial areas you can also see striae (stretch marks) as well. Eye damage.  Applying topical cortisone products to the face is not good for your eyes. The product will gravitate to the eye area as it melts and is absorbed into your skin. This can cause the cornea to become dangerously thin. Cortisone can also cause cortisone-specific cataracts (these are different than the more common type of cataracts). Steroid addiction. If the first two reasons are not enough, chronic application of cortisone creams, ointments, foams, gels, and solutions can also cause cortisone "addiction" of the skin, leading to inflammation that gets worse every time you try to stop the cortisone. Perioral dermatitis.  Some cortisone creams, ointments, gels, and solutions can even cause a rosacea-like rash called perioral dermatitis. This rash usually occurs around the nose or mouth, but I've also seen it around the eyes. I've seen it around the mouth and nose on patients who use cortisone asthma inhalers too. The rash causes itchy pimple-like pustules and blisters that are grouped around the involved area. The skin lesions get worse when you try to stop the cortisone. Treatment often requires oral antibiotics, although we don't know why they work. We also don't know the cause of perioral dermatitis beyond its sometime correlation with cortisone usage. To read more about perioral dermatitis click here. So, the answer to your question is a definite NO! Why then do we ever use topical cortisone for skin rashes if the side effects are serious? With chronic and stubborn facial rashes such as rosacea and facial dandruff (seborrheic dermatitis), the use of cortisone creams on facial skin is a last ditch attempt to wrestle control of the inflammation. The cortisone use should be limited in time, however.  Just exactly what that means varies from person to person. I tell my patients that if the rash is not getting better within two weeks, they need to come in and let me rethink treatment. My ultimate treatment goal for chronic inflammatory skin rashes is that my patients only need to use cortisone every now and then for just a day or two. The idea is to stop the beginning signs of inflammation before it builds into a full on rash. In my office, we also don't refill topical cortisone cream, ointment, and solution prescriptions indefinitely. For cortisone refills, I ask my patients to come in and show me their skin from time to time. This is an important part of my supervising their use of topical cortisone treatment because:

  1. I want to be certain that I'm always doing the best job I can with the other skin care treatments available to control their chronic skin problem. This is a key component to minimizing exposure to cortisone so that we prevent side effects! It's why I've made skin care kits like my Redness Relief Kit, which I use to build a basis of good skin care for rosacea and facial dandruff. dermatologist recommended products for rosacea and facial dandruff I add to that the other skin care products and prescriptions that have fewer or no side effects in the hope that these will keep the skin clear, thus negating the need for cortisone topical medicines. See below for links to my dandruff and rosacea skin care recommendations.
  2. It gives me a chance to double check that the cortisone cream is still an appropriate treatment for their skin problem. Remember, the skin has a limited vocabulary. Not every itchy, red, and scaly rash should be treated with cortisone; other skin rashes can develop and look similar, but require different treatments.
  3. It also allows me to supervise the use of the cortisone and examine their skin to be sure there are no signs of early cortisone side effects.

This is a really important question, thanks for asking it!  Below, I've added links to posts that outline my skin care recommendations for seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff) and rosacea. These are the two most common facial rashes that I treat -and they are really common, unfortunately. Again, the goal is to try to keep your complexion clear without the use of topical cortisone medicines. Warm Regards, Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist Disclaimer: Please realize that availing yourself of the opportunity to submit and receive answers to your questions from Dr. Bailey does not confer a doctor/patient relationship with Dr. Bailey. The information provided by Dr. Bailey is general health information inspired by your question. It should not be a substitute for obtaining medical advice from your physician and is not intended to diagnose or treat any specific medical problem (and is not an extension of the care Dr. Bailey has provided in her office for existing patients of her practice). Never ignore your own doctor’s advice because of something you read here; this information is for general informational purpose only.

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