What Is the Best Cream for Itchy Skin?

Anesthetic, steroid, and antihistamine creams can help relieve itching

Itchy Skin Remedies
Jonathan Storey Collection/Stone

If you have itchy skin, also known as pruritus, there are many different topical lotions you can try to relieve symptoms.

Most anti-itch creams contain one of three different types of active medications:

  • Topical steroids
  • Topical antihistamines
  • Topical anesthetics

Finding the Best Anti-Itch Cream

There are many different factors to consider when choosing your anti-itch cream. One big factor is the precise cause of your itch, as pruritus can be caused by a number of conditions like allergies, hives, psoriasis, and eczema.

Anti-itch creams can also help treat itching caused by infections such as yeast infections, ringworm, and scabies. But, if you have an infection, you will also need an anti-fungal medication. In other words, an anti-itch cream will simply help soothe the itch or mask your symptoms but not cure the infection or the underlying cause.

The bottom line is that getting to the root cause of your itching is imperative, so be sure to speak to your doctor before purchasing an over-the-counter cream.

Topical Steroids

Topical steroids are the best choice of anti-itch cream. They are available in a variety of strengths and formulas and can be purchased over the counter as hydrocortisone cream. Overall, ointments and creams are the strongest topical steroids while gels and sprays are the weakest. 

It's important to understand that topical steroids should be used with caution and generally under the guidance of a doctor, although they usually have few adverse effects when used for short periods of time and when taken as prescribed.

In fact, topical steroids have fewer side effects than oral steroids. 

Still, topical steroids can cause adverse effects, and the likelihood of these potential adverse effects (for example, thinning of the skin, called skin atrophy) depends on how well the steroid is absorbed into the skin.

With that, how well the steroid is absorbed into the skin depends on a number of factors like: 

  • The thickness of the skin—Eyelids have thin skin so there is more steroid absorption whereas the palms and soles of the feet are thicker and often require a higher potency topical steroid.
  • Surface area of the skin to which the cream is applied 
  • The potency of the steroids cream—for example, Clobetasol Propionate cream 0.05 percent is super high potency versus Hydrocortisone ointment 1 percent is low potency.
  • How often the cream is applied
  • Vehicle of the steroid used—for example, ointment versus gel

For children, it's important to talk to your child's pediatrician before applying a topical steroid. Children are more prone to the adverse effects of topical steroids, so weaker topical steroids, like gels and sprays, should be used if possible.

In addition, topical steroids, like Cutivate (fluticasone propionate) and Elocon (mometasone furoate), may be safer for kids since less of the steroid is absorbed. Cutivate is also the only FDA-approved topical steroid for children three months and older.

Topical Antihistamines

Antihistamines are a common medication used to treat allergies. In most cases, antihistamines are taken orally to relieve symptoms of an allergy attack. These types of anti-itch creams may also be helpful in treating eczema.

Topical antihistamines, such as those found in Benadryl cream and Caladryl lotion, should be used with caution since these medications can result in a future allergy to either the oral or topical forms of Benadryl (diphenhydramine).

Topical Anesthetics

Topical anesthetics are typically used to numb areas of pain. Some anesthetics, such as found in Lanacane cream (benzocaine), can cause contact dermatitis. While these products may have some benefit, especially for dental uses (such as with Orajel for mouth pain), they are not recommended for treating itchy skin.

A Word From Verywell

If you are using an over the counter anti-itch cream and your itching persists without relief, speak to your physician.

There may be a stronger prescription-strength medication that may help or an underlying cause that needs to be treated before symptoms can be relieved.

It's also wise to inquire about the cost of the topical agent you will be using. Topical steroids can be quite expensive as insurance does not always cover them. Generic and over-the-counter topical steroids tend to be the least expensive.

Sources:

American Academy of Dermatology. (2016). Topical Dermatologic Therapies. Basic Dermatology Curriculum. 

Schneider L et al. Atop dermatitis: a practice paramter update 2012. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2013 Feb;131(2):295-9.e1-27.

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