Can Drugs Be Absorbed through the Epidermis?

Unveiling the skin's marvelous capacity: Can drugs penetrate the epidermis? Discover the truth about transdermal absorption.

By Alis Behavioral Health Staff

April 22, 2024

Skin Absorption of Drugs

Understanding how drugs can be absorbed through the skin is essential in the field of pharmacology. The process of drug absorption through the skin occurs in multiple steps, starting with the penetration of the outermost layer of the skin known as the stratum corneum. Several factors can affect the absorption of drugs through the skin, including skin thickness, blood flow to the skin, and the properties of the drug formulation.

Understanding Skin Absorption

The skin possesses the ability to absorb certain substances, including medications. The stratum corneum, which is composed of a protein-lipid heterogeneous membrane, acts as the principal barrier to percutaneous transport. This barrier correlates the permeability of the membrane to a specific drug with factors such as the drug's water solubility and its lipid-protein partition coefficient.

The rate of absorption of chemicals through the skin can vary depending on the location on the body. In general, absorption is fastest in areas such as the scrotal region and forehead, and slower in areas like the back, abdomen, palm, and under the surface of the foot . Skin damage due to burns, abrasions, wounds, or skin diseases can increase absorption, making populations with skin damage more susceptible to adverse effects of agents that are absorbed through the skin.

Factors Affecting Absorption

Several factors influence the absorption of drugs through the skin. Here are some key factors to consider:

  • Skin Thickness: The thickness of the skin can vary across different areas of the body. Thinner skin, such as that found on the eyelids, allows for easier drug absorption, while thicker skin, like that on the palms and soles, presents more of a barrier to absorption.
  • Blood Flow to the Skin: Blood flow to the skin plays a significant role in drug absorption. Increased blood flow can enhance absorption, while reduced blood flow can hinder it.
  • Drug Formulation: The properties of the drug formulation can also affect absorption. Factors such as the solubility of the drug, the presence of permeation enhancers, and the type of delivery system used can all impact how readily a drug is absorbed through the skin.

Understanding these factors is crucial for the development of effective transdermal drug delivery systems, which allow drugs to be absorbed through the skin for localized treatment. Transdermal drug delivery offers several benefits, including the convenience of non-invasive administration, sustained release of medication, and avoidance of first-pass metabolism. It is used for various medications, including pain relief medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and lidocaine, hormonal patches for birth control or hormone replacement therapy, and nicotine replacement therapy products.

Transdermal Drug Delivery

Transdermal drug delivery involves the absorption of medications through the skin, providing several benefits for patients. This method offers convenience, as it eliminates the need for frequent oral medication administration. It also allows for prolonged drug release, maintaining a consistent therapeutic effect over an extended period of time. Additionally, transdermal delivery bypasses the gastrointestinal tract, reducing the potential for gastrointestinal side effects.

To facilitate transdermal drug delivery, specialized formulations such as patches, gels, or creams are applied to the skin surface. These formulations gradually penetrate the layers of the skin, reaching the bloodstream and delivering the medication effectively [1]. The ability of the skin to absorb certain substances, including medications, plays a crucial role in this process. Drug absorption through the skin occurs in multiple steps, beginning with the penetration of the outermost layer of the skin, known as the stratum corneum.

Benefits of Transdermal Delivery

Transdermal drug delivery offers several advantages over traditional routes of administration. Some of the key benefits include:

  1. Convenience: Transdermal patches provide a simple and convenient method of medication administration. They can be applied and worn discreetly, allowing patients to continue their daily activities without interruption.
  2. Controlled and Prolonged Release: Transdermal formulations are designed to release medication gradually over an extended period, ensuring a consistent therapeutic effect. This controlled release helps maintain steady drug levels in the body.
  3. Reduced Gastrointestinal Side Effects: By bypassing the gastrointestinal tract, transdermal delivery minimizes the potential for gastrointestinal side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and stomach upset. This is particularly beneficial for individuals with sensitive stomachs or those prone to gastrointestinal disturbances.
  4. Improved Compliance: The convenience and ease of transdermal drug delivery can improve patient compliance with medication regimens. Patients are more likely to adhere to treatment plans when they involve simple and non-invasive administration methods.

Specialized Drug Formulations

Transdermal drug delivery utilizes specialized formulations to optimize drug absorption through the skin. These formulations are designed to enhance drug permeation and provide efficient delivery. Common types of transdermal drug formulations include patches, gels, and creams.

Transdermal patches are one of the most widely used transdermal delivery systems. They consist of a drug reservoir embedded in an adhesive matrix. The patch adheres to the skin, allowing the medication to gradually permeate through the layers and into the bloodstream.

Gels and creams designed for transdermal delivery are formulated to optimize drug release and absorption. They are applied topically and typically contain active ingredients along with other excipients to aid in drug penetration.

By utilizing these specialized formulations, transdermal drug delivery offers a reliable and effective method of medication administration, providing benefits such as controlled release, improved compliance, and reduced gastrointestinal side effects. However, it's important to note that not all medications can be delivered transdermally, as the drug properties and skin characteristics play a significant role in determining the feasibility of this delivery method.

Mechanisms of Drug Absorption

When considering the absorption of drugs through the skin, it is essential to understand the different mechanisms involved. The process of drug absorption through the skin occurs in multiple steps, starting with the penetration of the outermost layer of the skin known as the stratum corneum [1]. Let's explore the three main mechanisms of drug absorption: passive diffusion, active transport, and intracellular penetration.

Passive Diffusion

Passive diffusion is the most common mechanism through which drugs are absorbed through the skin. This process relies on the concentration gradient between the drug formulation and the skin. The drug molecules passively diffuse from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration, penetrating the stratum corneum and reaching the underlying layers of the skin.

The stratum corneum, a two-phase protein-lipid heterogeneous membrane, acts as the principal barrier to percutaneous transport. The interstitial lipid phase of the stratum corneum plays a significant role in limiting drug diffusion, resulting in low apparent diffusivity of drugs like scopolamine [2]. As the drug penetrates the stratum corneum, it is primarily localized within the protein phase of the tissue.

Active Transport

Active transport is a less common mechanism of drug absorption through the skin compared to passive diffusion. Active transport involves the movement of drugs across the skin with the assistance of carrier proteins. This mechanism requires energy expenditure and can be selective, allowing certain drugs to be transported more efficiently.

While passive diffusion is the predominant mechanism, active transport plays a role in the absorption of specific drugs. This transport mechanism is particularly relevant for drugs that are structurally similar to endogenous substances that are actively transported across the skin.

Intracellular Penetration

Intracellular penetration refers to the ability of drugs to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin, reaching the cells and tissues beneath the stratum corneum. This mechanism allows drugs to exert their intended therapeutic effects by targeting specific cells or tissues within the skin.

Intracellular penetration can be facilitated by various factors, including the physicochemical properties of the drug, such as its lipophilicity or affinity for intracellular targets. Additionally, certain formulations or delivery systems can enhance intracellular penetration, allowing drugs to reach their desired sites of action effectively.

Understanding the mechanisms of drug absorption through the skin is crucial for the development of transdermal drug delivery systems. By optimizing formulations and considering factors that influence passive diffusion, active transport, and intracellular penetration, researchers can enhance the efficacy and efficiency of drug absorption through the skin.

It's important to note that not all drugs are suitable for transdermal delivery, as the skin's natural barrier, particularly the stratum corneum, can restrict the entry of most drugs. However, specialized drug formulations and delivery techniques have been developed to overcome these challenges and enable effective transdermal drug delivery.

Enhancing Absorption

To enhance the absorption of drugs through the skin, various techniques can be employed. These techniques include the use of chemical enhancers, physical enhancers, and formulation factors.

Chemical Enhancers

Chemical enhancers are substances that alter the structure and properties of the skin barrier, facilitating drug absorption. These enhancers can act by loosening the lipid structures in the stratum corneum, increasing drug solubility, or modifying the barrier properties of the skin. Some common chemical enhancers include:

  • Fatty acids
  • Surfactants
  • Penetration enhancers

The choice of chemical enhancer depends on the specific drug and its physicochemical properties. Careful consideration must be given to ensure the safety and effectiveness of these enhancers in drug delivery.

Physical Enhancers

Physical enhancers involve the use of physical means to temporarily alter the skin barrier, allowing for enhanced drug absorption. Some common physical enhancers include:

  • Iontophoresis: This technique utilizes a low-level electric current to facilitate the movement of charged drug molecules through the skin. It is particularly useful for enhancing the absorption of ionized drugs.
  • Sonophoresis: In this technique, ultrasound waves are applied to the skin, creating transient pores that enhance drug permeability.

Physical enhancers can offer improved drug penetration without compromising the integrity of the skin barrier. However, careful control and monitoring of the applied physical energy are essential to avoid adverse effects.

Formulation Factors

Formulation factors play a crucial role in enhancing the absorption of drugs through the skin. These factors include the choice of drug formulation, vehicle, and delivery system. Key considerations in formulation include:

  • Drug solubility: Formulating the drug in a suitable vehicle or carrier system to enhance solubility and bioavailability.
  • Release characteristics: Controlling the release of the drug from the formulation to ensure sustained and controlled delivery.
  • Absorption enhancers: Incorporating permeation enhancers or nanocarriers into the formulation to improve drug penetration through the skin.

Optimizing the formulation factors can significantly enhance drug absorption through the skin and improve the therapeutic efficacy of transdermal medications.

By utilizing chemical enhancers, physical enhancers, and considering formulation factors, researchers and scientists can enhance drug absorption through the skin, opening up possibilities for effective transdermal drug delivery systems. Careful selection and optimization of these techniques can lead to improved therapeutic outcomes and enhanced patient experiences.

Routes of Drug Absorption

When it comes to drug absorption, the skin can serve as a pathway for certain medications to enter the bloodstream. However, there are also other routes of drug absorption that bypass the skin entirely. In this section, we will explore three common routes of drug absorption: the subcutaneous route, the intranasal route, and the inhalational route.

Subcutaneous Route

The subcutaneous route of drug administration involves injecting the drug just beneath the skin into the fatty tissue. From there, the drug can enter the small blood vessels (capillaries) and be carried away by the bloodstream. Alternatively, the drug can also reach the bloodstream through the lymphatic vessels.

This route is commonly used for the administration of certain medications, such as insulin for diabetes management. Subcutaneous injections can be self-administered or performed by healthcare professionals. The fatty tissue beneath the skin allows for a slower release of the drug into the bloodstream, resulting in a sustained effect.

Intranasal Route

The intranasal route involves administering drugs through the nose. This route is commonly utilized for nasal decongestants in the treatment of cold or allergy symptoms. Medications such as desmopressin for diabetes insipidus or intranasal calcitonin for osteoporosis can also be administered through this route [6].

When drugs are administered intranasally, they are absorbed through the nasal mucosa and enter the bloodstream. This route offers advantages such as rapid absorption and avoidance of the first-pass metabolism in the liver. It is particularly useful when a quick onset of action is desired.

Inhalational Route

The inhalational route involves the administration of medications through inhalation. This route is typically used for respiratory conditions, delivering drugs directly to the lungs. Medications such as albuterol for asthma, corticosteroids for inflammatory lung diseases, and inhaled anesthetics are commonly administered via inhalation.

When drugs are inhaled, they enter the respiratory system and are absorbed by the alveolar epithelium in the lungs. The large surface area of the alveoli allows for efficient absorption of inhaled substances into the bloodstream. This route provides a rapid onset of action and can be particularly effective for targeting lung-related conditions.

Understanding the different routes of drug absorption is essential for determining the most suitable administration method for a particular medication. Whether it's the subcutaneous route for sustained release, the intranasal route for rapid absorption, or the inhalational route for targeting respiratory conditions, selecting the appropriate route ensures optimal drug delivery and efficacy.

Drug Absorption Techniques

To facilitate drug absorption through the skin, various techniques have been developed. Two notable techniques are iontophoresis and hydrogel-forming microneedles.


Iontophoresis is a technique that utilizes a mild electric current to enhance the absorption of drugs through the skin. This method involves the application of an electric field to drive charged drug molecules across the skin barrier. The electric current facilitates the movement of the drug through the skin's layers, bypassing the natural diffusion process.

Iontophoresis is commonly used for the localized delivery of drugs, especially those with a positive or negative charge. This technique has shown promising results in the transdermal delivery of drugs for conditions such as pain management and skin disorders. However, it's important to note that iontophoresis may not be suitable for all types of drugs or individuals with certain skin conditions. Proper medical supervision and guidance are crucial when utilizing iontophoresis for drug delivery.

Hydrogel-Forming Microneedles

Hydrogel-forming microneedles are another innovative approach for drug absorption through the skin. These microneedles are tiny, minimally invasive structures that penetrate the outermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum. Unlike traditional hypodermic needles, microneedles are designed to be painless and gentle.

The microneedles are made of biocompatible materials that can swell and form a hydrogel upon contact with bodily fluids. This hydrogel serves as a reservoir for drug delivery, allowing for controlled release over an extended period. The microneedles not only enhance drug absorption but also minimize the risk of infection and tissue damage.

Hydrogel-forming microneedles offer several advantages, including improved patient compliance, reduced side effects, and the potential for self-administration. This technique has gained attention for its potential in transdermal drug delivery, especially for macromolecules and vaccines.

Both iontophoresis and hydrogel-forming microneedles represent innovative approaches to enhance drug absorption through the skin. These techniques offer the potential for targeted and controlled drug delivery, opening up new possibilities for the treatment of various conditions. However, it's important to note that the applicability and effectiveness of these techniques may vary depending on the specific drug and individual factors. Consultation with healthcare professionals is always recommended to determine the most suitable drug absorption technique for specific conditions and medications.


Similar articles

Help is just a click away.

Get Help Now