Topical and Oral Retinoids to Treat Psoriasis

What you need to know about Tazorac and Soriatane

In This Article

Retinoids are forms of Vitamin A delivered in topical and oral formulations that can slow the growth of skin cells in people with psoriasis. Since their introduction in1971, retinoids have been used to treat a variety of skin disorders, from reducing flat warts and fine wrinkles to treating acne and certain types of skin cancer.

In total, there are six topical and five oral retinoids approved for use in the United States. Of these, there two are indicated for the treatment of psoriasis:

Tazorac can be used to treat mild to moderate psoriasis, while Soriatane is reserved solely for the treatment of severe psoriasis. Both are contraindicated for use in pregnancy.

How They Work

Psoriasis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease characterized by the hyperproduction of skin cells known as keratinocytes. Rather than turning over every 28 to 30 days as they are supposed to, keratinocytes will divide at an incredibly accelerated rate—every three to five days—under the burden of chronic inflammation. This can lead to the formation of the dry, itchy skin plaques we recognize as psoriasis.

Retinoids work by slowing skin growth at the cellular level. Rather than tempering inflammation like corticosteroids and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) do, retinoids penetrate skin cells and bind to the DNA receptors that regulate mitosis (cell division), By doing so, retinoid drugs can:

  • Slow the hyperproduction of skin cells
  • Reduce the size and thickness of skin plaques
  • Promote the shedding of dead skin cells
  • Reduce dryness and flaking
  • Improve the overall skin appearance

Tazorac (Tazarotene)

Tazorac cream was the first retinoid formulation approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of psoriasis. Generic versions of the drug have since been introduced under the brand names Avage, Fabior, Zorac, and others.


Tazorac is approved to treat mild to moderate plaque psoriasis covering less than 20 percent of the body. It is generally not the first drug of choice when psoriasis is diagnosed. Topical corticosteroids, along with emollient moisturizers, are usually more effective in bringing the symptoms under control.

Tazorac is approved for use in adult and children under 12. Children under 12 should use the product only under the direction of a qualified dermatologist.

Tazorac is generally used if topical corticosteroids fail to provide relief or cause serious side effects. It is rarely used on its own and may even be combined with a topical steroid or vitamin D derivative to reap the benefits of both.

Tazorac is also effective as a maintenance therapy once the condition is brought under control as it has fewer long-term side effects. It is also known to increase light sensitivity and may enhance the benefits of phototherapy.

Tazorac can even be used to support the treatment of severe psoriasis when used in combination with stronger oral or injected drugs.


Tazorac It is available in cream, gel, and foam formulations in 0.05% and 0.1% strengths. Comparatively speaking, the 0.1% formulation is more effective but is also more likely to cause side effects. Because of this, your dermatologist will likely prescribe a 0.05% formulation and switch to the stronger 0.1% formulation if needed.

Unlike most corticosteroid creams, the 0.1% formulation is safe to use on the face. The foam version is especially useful for treating scalp psoriasis as it can better penetrate thick hair.

Tazorac should never be used internally, including the mouth, vagina, or anus. It should also not be applied to the genitals unless your dermatologist tells you to. If you get some in your eyes, rinse thoroughly with water.


Tazorac is used once daily and applied to the affected skin only. To prevent dryness, rub some light moisturizing cream onto the skin before applying a thin layer of Tazorac cream. You can do the same with the scalp, but avoid heavier scalp serums or oils that can block absorption.

To avoid irritating the surrounding skin, dab a barrier of petroleum jelly around the border of the plaque before applying Tazorac.

Side Effects

The most common side effects of Tazorac use (affecting 10 percent to 30 percent of users) are itching, burning, stinging, skin redness, and skin pain. Some people may even experience a short-term worsening of symptoms.

Many of these symptoms will resolve as your body adapts to the medication; however, you may need to lower the dose or "pulse" treatment with on and off days until you are better able to tolerate treatment.

Tazorac can also make your skin extremely sensitive to the sun. Because of this, you need to use sunscreen and wear protective clothing whenever outdoors. Unprotected skin is more likely to burn, which may, in turn, trigger a worsening of symptoms.

Tazorac should not be used in people with a known allergy to tazarotene or any of the other ingredients in the product.

Call your doctor if the side effects persist or worsen, or if you experience blistering, peeling, rash, severe redness, swelling, warmth, oozing, or fever.


No drugs interactions have been identified with Tazorac. With that said, if you take medications that increase photosensitivity, you will need to take extra precautions when outdoors or switch to another product. Examples include:

  • Thiazide drugs, like Diuril (chlorothiazide), used to treat high blood pressure
  • Certain antibiotics, including tetracycline, ciprofloxacin, and Bactrim (sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim)

Advise your doctor about any drugs you are taking before starting treatment, including over-the-counter medications, dietary supplements, herbal remedies, and recreational drugs.

Soriatane (Acitretin)

Soriatane was approved for use by the FDA in 2003 for the treatment of severe psoriasis in adults. It is a second-generation retinoid developed from an earlier form of the drug known as Tegison (etretinate). Tegison was removed from the market in 1998 due to the high risk of side effects.


Soriatane it is only used in adults with severe psoriasis who have not responded to first- and second-line drugs like hydrocortisone cream, methotrexate, or cyclosporine. Severe psoriasis is generally defined as having psoriatic plaques on more than 30 percent of the body or on large portions of the face, palms, or soles.

Soriatane is often used in combination with phototherapy or newer-generation biologic drugs like Humira (adalimumab) and Enbrel (etanercept).


Soriatane is available as a gel cap in a 10-milligram (mg), 17.5-mg, or 25-mg strength. It is generally prescribed in a once-daily, 25-mg to 50-mg dose and taken with food for optimal absorption.

While effective, it can take up to three months before you feel the benefits of Soriatane treatment. During this time, you may experience a temporary worsening of symptoms. This is normal and is not an indication that the treatment is failing.

Side Effects

The side effects of Soriatane use are significant and sometimes severe. In fact, according to the FDA, 98 percent of users will experience side effects and no less than one in four users will discontinue treatment due to intolerability. The most common side effects (occurring in at least 10 percent of users) include:

  • Lip inflammation
  • Hair loss
  • Peeling skin
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose and congestion
  • Dry skin
  • Nail changes
  • Itchiness
  • Chills and shaking
  • Eye dryness
  • Dry mouth
  • Nose bleeds
  • Joint pain
  • Spinal stiffness
  • Worsening of psoriasis symptoms
  • Skin rash
  • Abnormal skin sensations
  • Skin atrophy (thinning)

Soriatane can affect other organ systems as well, including the heart, brain, liver, and circulatory system. This can result in less common but potentially more serious side effects.

Call your doctor if you experience confusion, suicidal thoughts, vomiting, difficulty speaking or moving, the yellowing of the eyes or skin, chest pains, irregular heartbeats, or any other symptom that doesn't seem right.


Soriatane can interact with other medications, often increasing or decreasing the blood concentration of one or both drugs. These include:


Soriatane should not be used in people with a known allergy to acitretin or any other ingredient in the drug. Other contraindications include:

  • Severe liver disease
  • Severe kidney impairment
  • Methotrexate, which increases the risk of liver toxicity
  • Tetracycline antibiotics, which can cause abnormal intracranial pressure

Black Box Warning

Tazorac and Soriatane carry a black box warning advising women to never use the drugs during pregnancy. Both classified as a Pregnancy Category X drugs, meaning that they can cause fetal harm and should only be used when no other options are available.

Soriatane especially has been known to cause bone and facial malformations, structural heart and vascular defects, and meningomyelocele ("split spine").

If prescribed to women of child-bearing age, contraception must be used consistently and pregnancy tests performed every month. Women on Soriatane would need to continue this for three years after treatment is stopped due to the persistence of the drug in the body.

If a positive pregnancy test result is returned, you will need to stop treatment immediately and call your doctor. If you are unable to adhere to contraception, you may need to choose another form of treatment other than Tazorac or Soriatane.

It is recommended that women have a negative pregnancy test two weeks prior to starting treatment. Some doctors will advise their female patients to start treatment during their period when they are definitely not pregnant.

Scientists aren’t sure if Tazorac or Soriatane can be passed to a baby through breastmilk, so speak with your doctor to understand the benefits and risks of nursing while on treatment.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources