3 Best Anti-Itch Creams to Soothe Itchy Skin

Topical Steroids, Antihistamines, and Anesthetics

Anti-itch creams help reduce itchiness (also known as pruritus) in different ways. While moisturizers can relieve itching caused by skin dryness, the best anti-itch creams have active ingredients that specifically target the mechanisms that trigger itchiness.

Each type has a different mechanism of action:

  • Topical steroids work by reducing skin inflammation (including redness, swelling, and itch).
  • Topical antihistamines work by blocking a chemical called histamine that triggers allergy symptoms, including itch.
  • Topical anesthetics work by blocking nerve receptors in the skin and numbing the skin.

Depending on the cause and severity of your itch, your healthcare provider may recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) cream for things like bug bites or allergies or a prescription cream for conditions like eczema or psoriasis.

This article explores different types of anti-itch creams, including which conditions they work best for.

Types of Topical Anti-Itch Creams

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Topical Steroids

Topical steroids, also known as topical corticosteroids, are the best anti-itch creams for any type of inflammatory skin condition. These include rashes, hives, eczema, psoriasis, and a host of other possible causes.

In the United States, hydrocortisone is the only topical steroid sold over the counter under brand names like Cortizone, Equate, Exederm, and others.

On the other hand, there are numerous prescription topical steroids that are categorized by their strength, with Class 1 steroids being the strongest and Class 7 steroids being the weakest.

Over-the-Counter
  • Hydrocortisone (0.5% to 1%)

Prescription
  • Class 1 like Temovate (clobetasol) 0.05%

  • Class 2 like Lidex (fluocinonide) 0.05%

  • Class 3 like Elocon (mometasone) 0.1%

  • Class 4 like Triderm (triamcinolone) 0.1%

  • Class 5 like Dermatop (prednicarbate) 0.1%

  • Class 6 like Desonate (desonide) 0.05%

  • Class 7 like Hytone (hydrocortisone) 2.5%

Topical steroids have fewer side effects than oral steroids that are taken by mouth. Even so, topical steroids can sometimes cause itching or burning.

When overused, topical steroids can also cause dermal atrophy (thinning skin). Lower-strength formulations pose less risk than higher-strength options. How much you apply can also make a difference.

Regardless, all topical steroids should be used carefully and ideally under the direction of a healthcare provider.

Can Children Use Topical Steroids?

It's important to talk to your child's pediatrician before applying a topical steroid. Children are more sensitive to the effects of topical steroids, so weaker products should be used as a general rule.

Class 3 topical steroids like Cutivate (fluticasone) and Elocon (mometasone furoate) may be safer for kids since less steroid is absorbed. Cutivate is, in fact, the only topical steroid approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for children ages 3 months and older.

Topical Antihistamines

Allergies occur when your immune system overreacts to a triggering substance, known as an allergen, and releases a chemical called histamine into the bloodstream and tissues. Histamine is the substance that triggers a cascade of allergy symptoms involving the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, and digestive tract.

Pruritis is one of the common symptoms of skin allergies along with rash, hives, and swelling.

Antihistamines work by blocking the action of histamine, providing fast relief of acute allergy symptoms. They may also be helpful in treating eczema (an atopic condition related to allergies).

Over-the-Counter
  • Benadryl Itch Stopping Cream (diphenhydramine)

Prescription
  • Dimetindene 0.1%

  • Mepyramine 2.0%

  • Phenoxene (chlorphenoxamine)

  • Prudoxin (doxepin)

Topical antihistamines should be applied at the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time. Long-term use can increase the risk of side effects when taking oral antihistamines. The overuse can also cause skin irritation, rash, and UV light sensitivity.

Topical Anesthetics

Topical anesthetics (also known as numbing agents) are typically used to reduce pain but may also relieve itching caused by minor burns, bug bites, and poison ivy.

Topical anesthetics work by blocking nerve receptors in the upper layers of skin (called nociceptors) that transmit pain signals to the brain. This can relieve mild itchiness.

Over-the-Counter
  • Caladryl (calamine + pramoxine 1.0%)

  • Gold Bond (pramoxine 1.0%)

  • Lanacane (benzocaine 20%)

  • Lidocaine (4.0% to 5.0%)

Prescription
  • Emla (lidocaine 2.5% + prilocaine 2.5%)

Keep in mind that some anesthetics, such as Lanacane, can trigger an itchy rash known as contact dermatitis.

Summary

Anti-itch creams are used to relieve pruritus (itchiness). Topical steroids, topical antihistamines, and topical anesthetics are the most common anti-itch creams, each of which targets the underlying cause of itchiness in different ways.

A Word From Verywell

Anti-itch creams may also be used to help soothe itching caused by infections such as yeast infections, ringworm, and scabies. But, if you have an infection, you will also need additional medication to treat it.

This and the fact that some of these infections are contagious is even more reason to see a healthcare provider if you're not sure what's causing your itchiness.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the best itching cream for private parts?

    There are topical steroid creams that are specially formulated to relieve vaginal itching, including Monistat (1.0% hydrocortisone) and Vagisil (5% benzocaine). Jock itch, a fungal infection of the genitals and buttocks, can be treated with an over-the-counter topical antifungal like Lotrimin AF (clotrimazole).

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Song J, Xian D, Yang L, Xiong X, Lai R, Zhong J. Pruritus: progress toward pathogenesis and treatmentBiomed Res Int. 2018;2018:9625936. doi:10.1155/2018/9625936

  2. Dhar S, Seth J, Parikh D. Systemic side-effects of topical corticosteroidsIndian J Dermatol. 2014;59(5):460–464. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.139874

  3. Rathi SK, D'Souza P. Rational and ethical use of topical corticosteroids based on safety and efficacyIndian J Dermatol. 2012;57(4):251–259. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.97655

  4. Spada F, Barnes TM, Greive KA. Comparative safety and efficacy of topical mometasone furoate with other topical corticosteroidsAustralas J Dermatol. 2018;59(3):e168–e174. doi:10.1111/ajd.12762

  5. Thurmond RL, Kazerouni K, Chaplan SR, Greenspan AJ. Antihistamines and itch. In: Cowan A, Yosipovitch G, eds. Pharmacology of Itch. Vol 226. Springer Berlin Heidelberg; 2015:257-290. doi:10.1007/978-3-662-44605-8_15

  6. Mayo Clinic. Drugs and Supplements. Anesthetic, Local (Topical Application Route).

  7. To D, Kossintseva I, De Gannes G. Lidocaine contact allergy is becoming more prevalent. Dermatol Surg. 2014;40(12):1367-72. doi:10.1097/DSS.0000000000000190

  8. May P, Bowen A, Tong S, et al. Protocol for the systematic review of the prevention, treatment and public health management of impetigo, scabies and fungal skin infections in resource-limited settingsSyst Rev. 2016;5(1):162. doi:10.1186/s13643-016-0335-0

By Daniel More, MD
Daniel More, MD, is a board-certified allergist and clinical immunologist. He is an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and currently practices at Central Coast Allergy and Asthma in Salinas, California.