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Psoriasis is a chronic, immune-mediated condition. It typically affects the skin, but can also have implications for other organ systems, including the joints.

When psoriasis affects the skin, it causes cells to multiply too rapidly. This leads to increased turnover of skin cells, which is why some people form thick, red itchy, and scaly patches, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In people who don’t have psoriasis, the typical life cycle for a skin cell ranges from just over a month, or 37 days, to nearly 2 months, or 56 days. This includes the time it takes for the skin cell to grow, rise to the surface, and eventually fall off.

For folks with psoriasis, the life cycle is shorter — sometimes it happens in just a few days, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation.

In people with psoriasis, the skin can’t shed as quickly as it needs to in order to keep up with the pace of new skin cells. This leads to the formation of thick, pink, red, purplish or gray scaly, inflamed, itchy plaques on the skin. The patches are especially likely in areas that tend to have more friction, such as the elbows or knees.

These patches of irritated skin can appear anywhere on the body. However, they’re most commonly found on the knees, elbows, and scalp. About 7.5 million people in the United States have psoriasis.

Experts don’t know exactly what causes psoriasis, but they believe a person’s genes and environmental exposures both play a role. Psoriasis isn’t contagious, which means that you can’t pass it to another person.

On a basic level, psoriasis is caused by dysfunction of the immune system. In the case of psoriasis, the immune system is overactive.

While there’s no cure for psoriasis, certain over-the-counter (OTC) treatments can ease itchy, scaly, or uncomfortable skin. Many people can also decrease flares by avoiding known triggers.

OTC products are often sold online or in stores without a doctor’s prescription. The products are available to treat psoriasis with ingredients like salicylic acid, urea, coal tar, hydrocortisone. These ingredients can help reduce or manage symptoms.

They come in multiple formulation options, and the one you choose will depend on where your psoriasis is located on the body. You’ll see:

  • lotions
  • creams
  • gels
  • oils
  • foams
  • bath solutions
  • shampoos

In this article, we take a look at the most commonly used OTC products for psoriasis, and how they work to help relieve symptoms.

Talk with a doctor before trying OTC treatments

It’s always a good idea to talk with a doctor before trying any OTC treatments for psoriasis. Be especially cautious of products sold online that promise miracle cures. Your doctor can help you determine what type of topical medication is safe to use and might work best for your symptoms.

Your doctor may advise you to patch test the product before you implement use. A patch test will help you determine if the product causes any irritation or triggers an allergy.

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There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to over-the-counter treatments, each with unique considerations and benefits.

Salicylic acid is an agent that’s commonly used to treat symptoms of psoriasis, as it can help you slough off built-up, old skin cells.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved salicylic acid for treating psoriasis. This ingredient works by prompting the outer layer of the skin to shed, which helps lessen scaling and swelling.

It’s important to use salicylic acid as directed because too much can cause irritation and worsen your condition.

In addition, salicylic acid can cause dryness, so you may need to pair it with a moisturizer. You’ll want to steer clear of salicylic acid if you’re allergic to aspirin. Even if you aren’t allergic to aspirin, it’s best to do a patch test of products that contain salicylic acid.

It should be kept out of the reach of children and infants, as it’s not meant to be ingested. In addition, products with it shouldn’t be used for children, as they have a higher ratio skin surface area compared to body weight ratio than adults.


  • softens and removes scales
  • may reduce swelling
  • effective for many other skin problems, such as acne


  • should be applied only following your dermatologist’s directions
  • may cause irritation if left on too long
  • can weaken hair shafts and make them less durable
  • may not be suitable for young children
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Tar is another ingredient that’s FDA-approved to treat psoriasis. It comes from coal and wood and can slow the growth of skin cells. Many people report that they have smoother skin with less scaling, itching, and inflammation while using coal tar.

However, coal tar products can irritate your skin and make it more sensitive to the sun. You should use sunscreen when outdoors. Additionally, at least one study from 2012 found that very high amounts of coal tar, such as those used to seal pavement, increased the risk of cancer.

Though the volume used to treat psoriasis on your skin is far lower, the National Psoriasis Foundation lists it as a potential concern, so you may want to talk with your doctor about potential risks and follow up accordingly.


  • slows the rapid growth of skin cells
  • gives skin a smooth appearance
  • helps relieve itching and flaking


  • may irritate, dry out skin, or cause redness
  • may have a link to cancer if used in very high amounts
  • makes skin more sensitive to sunlight
  • may stain clothing, bedding, or linens
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Keeping your skin moisturized and hydrated can help with redness and itching. Heavy creams or ointments that lock in moisture are preferred. They relieve dryness and help your skin heal.

You can even use shortening or coconut oil to keep your skin lubricated.


  • keep skin hydrated
  • may lessen itching and redness
  • help skin heal


  • can be messy if the moisturizer is oily
  • may contain fragrances or alcohol, which can cause further irritation
  • may not be effective on their own
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Some OTC bath products help remove scales and soothe irritated skin. To create your own solution, add any of the following items to your bath:

Try to soak for about 15 minutes in the solution, and bathe just once per day. Hot water will dry out and further irritate your skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). That said, you’ll want to opt for warm water instead.


  • helps to remove scales
  • may relieve itchiness
  • could also help sore muscles or damaged joints


  • about 15 minutes is needed to maximize benefits
  • may not be as convenient as other options
  • can dry out skin if you soak for too long or use excessively hot water
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OTC scale lifters, also known as keratolytics, usually contain ingredients like:

Products with these ingredients help loosen and slough off dead skin cells, which let medications reach the psoriasis plaques. It might help to take a warm, 15-minute bath before using a scale lifter.

Scale lifters are chemical exfoliants, which help people to slowly slough off dead skin cells. These are unlike mechanical exfoliation, which can exacerbate symptoms.


  • allow medicines to reach the psoriasis plaques
  • may reduce swelling


  • could be too harsh for skin anywhere other than the scalp
  • can worsen psoriasis if you use too much
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Occlusion refers to covering the skin. When your skin is covered, it’s better able to absorb topical medications or moisturizers. You can cover areas with:

  • cellophane
  • plastic wrap
  • waterproof dressings
  • cotton socks
  • a nylon suit

Talk with your doctor before trying this method. It’s important to know which topical treatments are safe to use beneath a skin covering.


  • help skin better absorb medications and moisturizers
  • trap moisture and heat to help hydrate skin


  • can be inconvenient
  • may only be suitable for certain areas of the body
  • may not be safe to use with all products
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OTC anti-itch products may contain the following ingredients:

These medications can help relieve itchiness caused by psoriasis, but they can also irritate and dry out your skin.

People with psoriasis sometimes already have dry skin. If that’s something you have, there may be alternatives that can relieve itchiness by providing hydration, without further drying your skin. Pairing these products with a moisturizer can also help, according to the AAD.


  • relieve itchiness


  • may irritate or dry out the skin
  • can cause sensitivity to sunlight
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Other OTC treatments that can soothe your skin and relieve itching may include the following:

While the effectiveness of some of these ingredients hasn’t been proven, many people with psoriasis report relief anecdotally.


  • can help soothe skin
  • may improve or decrease itchiness


  • effectiveness hasn’t been proven for many of these products
  • may cause skin irritation or burning if overused
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Some OTC treatments can irritate or dry out your skin. You may want to use a moisturizer along with them to counter this effect.

Using a moisturizer daily, or twice daily, can help prevent flares and keep the skin moist. However, it’s important to choose one that’s unscented and excludes preservatives that could further irritate psoriasis.

It also might be helpful to test products on a small area of the skin first to see how you respond to the treatment. Some topical medications can be applied on top of a moisturizer to minimize side effects.

Treatments that contain coal tar can stain clothing or bed linens, so you might want to protect these items with a towel or other barrier.

It’s also important to know that the concentration of ingredients can vary depending on the brand and product. Typically, the higher the concentration, the stronger the medication.

Ingredients to avoid

Some ingredients to avoid when choosing OTC psoriasis products include:

  • fragrances
  • alcohol
  • harsh chemicals
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There’s no sure way to prevent psoriasis, but certain lifestyle habits may help lessen the risk of a flare-up or reduce symptoms. Some of these strategies include:

  • Keep skin moisturized: Skin that’s well hydrated may be less susceptible to psoriasis flares.
  • Lower your stress levels: High levels of stress are linked to flare-ups. Participating in activities like yoga or meditation, or joining a support group may help you manage stress.
  • Protect your skin: Skin injuries can increase your risk of symptoms. Try not to scratch or damage your skin.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking: Alcohol and tobacco can make psoriasis worse.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle: Eating a balanced diet and exercising daily can help you manage your symptoms.

The National Psoriasis Foundation recommends that anyone who has psoriasis should see a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin conditions.

Seeking a medical professional’s opinion is of particular importance if:

  • You’re experiencing a flare-up, and your symptoms are getting worse.
  • Your current treatments aren’t working.
  • You’d like to try a new therapy.

While coal tar products can help with psoriasis symptoms, they can also increase your sensitivity to sunlight.

If you use coal tar products regularly, the FDA says it’s even more important to protect your skin if you go under the sun. You can consider wearing sunscreen, donning a wide-brimmed hat, and using protective clothing (such as a long-sleeve shirt). When possible, try to limit your time in the sun.

However, it’s best for everyone to be safe and wear sunscreen while outside.

Can psoriasis be healed naturally?

There’s no cure for psoriasis, but some symptoms may improve with natural remedies. Examples of these include applying products that contain aloe vera, or taking an oatmeal bath.

Do doctors recommend the use of over-the-counter treatments for psoriasis?

If your symptoms are mild, doctors may recommend you first try an over-the-counter (OTC) treatment for your psoriasis. If these medicines are ineffective, you may want to consider some sort of prescription therapy.

People with psoriasis often need medication during bad flares, in particular.

Is it safe to use over-the-counter psoriasis treatments daily?

You can use OTC products, such as moisturizers, daily. However, some treatments may be applied less frequently or only when you have flare-ups.

If you notice skin irritation or worsening symptoms when you start to use a new product, you should consult with your doctor. Cutting back on your usage could also help.

Several OTC products are available to help treat symptoms of psoriasis. While many of these offer relief, it’s best to talk with a doctor before using a new therapy for your condition.

If these treatments don’t work, your doctor can recommend a prescription medication that might do a better job of easing your symptoms.