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Can Drugs Be Absorbed Through The Skin?

When it comes to drug delivery, most people think of pills, injections, or even inhalers. However, there is another way drugs can be administered: through the skin. This method, known as transdermal drug delivery, has been around for decades and is used for a variety of medications. But can drugs really be absorbed through the skin? Let's take a closer look.

April 3, 2023

How Transdermal Drug Delivery Works

Transdermal drug delivery is a method of administering drugs through the skin. The skin is a complex organ that serves as a barrier between the outside world and the body's internal organs.

However, the skin is not an impenetrable barrier. It is composed of several layers, including the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. These layers vary in thickness and composition, and they play a crucial role in determining how drugs are absorbed through the skin.

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Transdermal drug delivery works by using a patch or a cream that contains the drug. The patch or cream is applied to the skin, and the drug is absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the drug can travel to the target organ or tissue and exert its therapeutic effect.

Advantages of Transdermal Drug Delivery

Transdermal drug delivery has several advantages over other methods of drug delivery. One of the main advantages is that it provides a constant and controlled release of the drug. This means that the drug is released into the bloodstream at a steady rate, which can help to maintain a constant therapeutic effect.

Another advantage of transdermal drug delivery is that it avoids the first-pass effect. The first-pass effect is a phenomenon in which drugs are metabolized by the liver before they reach the systemic circulation. This can result in a lower bioavailability of the drug. With transdermal drug delivery, the drug bypasses the liver and goes directly into the bloodstream, which can result in a higher bioavailability of the drug.

Can All Drugs Be Absorbed Through The Skin?

Not all drugs can be absorbed through the skin. The ability of a drug to be absorbed through the skin depends on several factors, including the drug's molecular weight, solubility, and lipophilicity. Generally, small, lipophilic drugs are more likely to be absorbed through the skin than large, hydrophilic drugs.

Examples of drugs that can be administered through the skin include nicotine, fentanyl, and estradiol. These drugs are small and lipophilic, which allows them to penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream.

Where Can Drugs Be Absorbed?

While transdermal drug delivery is a well-established method, it's important to note that not all areas of the skin are equally effective at absorbing drugs.

The ideal site for transdermal drug delivery is an area of skin with a high density of hair follicles and sweat glands. This is because these structures can increase the permeability of the skin and facilitate drug absorption.

Common sites for transdermal drug delivery include the upper arm, thigh, and abdomen. However, other factors such as age, gender, and ethnicity can also affect how drugs are absorbed through the skin.

Where Can Drugs Be Absorbed?

For example, older adults may have thinner skin, which can make it easier for drugs to penetrate through the skin. Similarly, individuals with darker skin may have a lower rate of drug absorption due to increased melanin content in their skin.

In conclusion, while drugs can be absorbed through the skin, not all drugs are suitable for this method of delivery. Factors such as molecular weight, solubility, and lipophilicity play a crucial role in determining whether a drug can be administered via transdermal patches or creams.

Additionally, the site of application and individual variations in skin properties can also affect how drugs are absorbed through the skin.

Can You Overdose On Drugs By Touching Them?

While transdermal drug delivery is a safe and effective way to administer medications, it's important to note that not all drugs are safe to handle. Some drugs can be absorbed through the skin at such a rapid rate that they can cause toxicity or overdose.

For example, fentanyl is a powerful opioid pain medication that can be administered through the skin using a patch. While this method of delivery is safe when used as directed, fentanyl can also be dangerous if handled improperly. If a person touches or ingests a fentanyl patch, they can absorb enough of the drug to cause respiratory depression, coma, or even death.

Other drugs that can be dangerous if handled improperly include chemotherapy drugs and certain pesticides. These drugs are designed to kill cells or organisms, so they can be extremely toxic if absorbed through the skin or ingested.

To avoid accidental exposure and overdose, it's important to handle medications with care. Always follow the instructions provided by your healthcare provider or pharmacist when using transdermal patches or creams. If you accidentally touch a medication or suspect you have been exposed to a toxic substance, seek medical attention immediately.


In conclusion, transdermal drug delivery is a viable method of drug administration that has several advantages over other methods. While not all drugs can be absorbed through the skin, many can, including nicotine, fentanyl, and estradiol. If you are considering using a transdermal drug delivery system, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider to determine if it is right for you.

Dr. Elizabeth Drew
Medical Director

Medical Director Dr. Elizabeth Drew graduated from Hahnemann University School of Medicine and completed her family practice residency at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown PA. In 2005, she opened her family medicine office in Doylestown, and in 2008 she treated her first patient for opiate addiction.

Since then Dr. Drew has attained her board certification in Addiction Medicine, treated more than a thousand patients for addiction to opiates and alcohol, participated in programs to educate the community, traveled to Washington DC to educate our legislators, and served as Medical Director at some of the best addiction treatment programs in Pennsylvania.

She understands that addiction is a chronic disease that no one would choose to have, and her treatment philosophy is based on respect, compassion, and empowerment. She is excited to be the Medical Director of MPower Wellness and work to provide superior addiction treatment in Chester County.

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