How long do hydrocortisone creams last?

Hydrocortisone creams are topical steroid creams used to treat skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, insect bites, poison ivy, and other inflammatory skin conditions. They help reduce redness, swelling, itching, and discomfort associated with these conditions. Hydrocortisone creams come in different strengths, ranging from 0.5% to 2.5%, and are available over-the-counter or by prescription.

How Long Does Hydrocortisone Cream Last After Opening?

Most hydrocortisone creams can last for up to 1 year after opening if stored properly. However, once opened and exposed to air and moisture, the potency and effectiveness of the cream may start to reduce over time. Here are some general guidelines on how long hydrocortisone creams last after opening:

  • 0.5% hydrocortisone cream – up to 18 months
  • 1% hydrocortisone cream – up to 12 months
  • 2.5% hydrocortisone cream – up to 6 months

Higher strength creams tend to have a shorter shelf life once opened compared to lower strength creams. Always check the expiration date on the tube or box before using a hydrocortisone product.

Tips to Make Hydrocortisone Creams Last Longer

Here are some tips to help prolong the potency and shelf life of your hydrocortisone cream after opening:

  • Store in a cool, dry place away from excess heat or moisture.
  • Keep the tube or tub tightly closed when not in use.
  • Do not touch the tip of the tube directly to the skin to avoid contamination.
  • Use a clean applicator if provided to apply the cream.
  • Do not mix with other creams or ointments.
  • Avoid using after the expiration date.
  • Don’t use if the color or odor has changed.

How Long Does Hydrocortisone Cream Last on Skin?

When applied topically, hydrocortisone creams can provide relief from inflammatory skin conditions for up to 6-12 hours. However, the duration of action depends on several factors:

  • Strength of cream – Higher strength preparations (2.5%) provide longer relief than milder 0.5% creams.
  • Skin condition – The cream may work longer for mild conditions compared to severe inflammation and thickened skin.
  • Area of application – Thicker skin areas like palms and soles allow longer action than thinner facial skin.
  • Use of occlusives – Covering the skin with bandages or plastic wrap helps the cream stay longer on the skin.
  • Frequency of application – More frequent application results in sustained action.

On average, a mild 0.5% hydrocortisone cream may last 4-6 hours when applied to active inflammation. The more potent 2.5% creams may continue working for up to 12 hours after application on thick, chronic inflammatory lesions.

How Much Hydrocortisone Cream Should You Use?

Using the right amount of hydrocortisone is important – too much can cause side effects while too little may not adequately treat the condition. Here are some general dosage guidelines based on the percentage strength:

Hydrocortisone Percentage Amount to Use
0.5% Very thin layer 1-2 times daily
1% Thin layer 1-2 times daily
2.5% Moderately thick layer 1-2 times daily

Unless prescribed otherwise, hydrocortisone creams should not be used for longer than 7 days for mild conditions or up to 14 days for more severe cases. Follow your doctor’s or pharmacist’s directions on usage and application.

Side Effects of Hydrocortisone Cream

When used correctly under medical guidance, hydrocortisone creams have minimal side effects. However, improper or prolonged use can sometimes lead to localized side effects like:

  • Skin atrophy – thinning of the skin
  • Telangiectasia – visible reddish lines due to dilated capillaries
  • Skin discoloration
  • Acne eruptions
  • Burning or stinging sensation
  • Dryness and scaling
  • Irritation and itching
  • Allergic contact dermatitis

Absorption into the bloodstream can cause adrenal gland suppression, Cushing’s syndrome, hypertension, and other systemic corticosteroid side effects if used excessively over large surface areas.

Risk Factors

Certain individuals are at a higher risk of side effects from topical steroid use:

  • Infants and children
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • Elderly individuals
  • People with diabetes
  • Patients taking other corticosteroid medications

Prolonged use for over 2-4 weeks also increases the risks of topical steroid adverse reactions. Discontinue use and see a doctor if you experience any concerning symptoms with hydrocortisone cream application.

Precautions When Using Hydrocortisone Cream

Some important precautions to take when using hydrocortisone topical creams include:

  • Avoid use on face, underarms, groin except on doctor’s advice.
  • Do not use over large body surface areas.
  • Avoid contact with eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Do not bandage tightly, use only loose dressings.
  • Do not use on infected or broken skin.
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure after application.

Check with your pharmacist or doctor if the cream is safe during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Call your doctor if your condition worsens or does not improve within 7-14 days. Seek immediate medical care if you experience any allergic reactions after use.

When to See a Doctor

Consult your doctor or dermatologist if:

  • Your condition does not improve within 7-14 days of using hydrocortisone cream.
  • The skin condition worsens or spreads to other areas.
  • You experience severe burning, stinging, swelling, oozing or other reactions after application.
  • You need to use the cream for longer than 2 weeks.
  • The affected area becomes infected.
  • You have frequent recurrence of skin conditions that require hydrocortisone cream use.

Prolonged, excessive use of topical steroids like hydrocortisone can lead to irreversible skin damage and systemic absorption. Always consult a doctor for appropriate evaluation and supervision when using these medications.


Hydrocortisone creams are effective at-home treatments for inflammatory skin conditions when used judiciously under medical guidance. The shelf life after opening can vary from 6 months up to 1 year if stored properly. Duration of action after application may last 4-12 hours based on usage factors. To prevent adverse effects, hydrocortisone cream should be used in limited amounts for short durations of 1-2 weeks only. Seek medical advice if your condition is severe or if you experience any alarming reactions after use.

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