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Perioral Dermatitis

By Karen McKoy, MD, MPH, Lahey Clinic Medical Center

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Patient Education

Perioral dermatitis is an erythematous, papulopustular facial eruption that resembles acne and/or rosacea but typically starts around the mouth.

A variety of causes of perioral dermatitis have been proposed, including exposure to topical corticosteroids and/or fluoride in water and toothpaste, but the etiology is unknown. Despite its name, perioral dermatitis is not a true dermatitis. It primarily affects women of childbearing age and children. The eruption classically starts at the nasolabial folds and spreads periorally, sparing a zone around the vermilion border of the lips. But the eruption can also spread periorbitally and to the forehead.


  • Clinical evaluation

Diagnosis is by appearance; perioral dermatitis is distinguished from acne by the absence of comedones and from rosacea by the latter’s lack of lesions around the mouth and eyes. Seborrheic dermatitis and contact dermatitis must be excluded.

Biopsy, which is generally not clinically necessary, shows spongiosis and a lymphohistiocytic infiltrate affecting vellus hair follicles. In the lupoid variant, granulomas may be present.


  • Avoidance of fluorinated dental products and topical corticosteroids

  • Topical antibiotics or oral tetracycline

Perioral dermatitis treatment is to stop fluorinated dental products and topical corticosteroids (if being used) and then use topical antibiotics (eg, erythromycin 2% or metronidazole 0.75% gel or cream bid) or oral tetracycline 250 to 500 mg po bid (between meals) for 4 wk, tapered to the lowest effective dose. Alternative oral antibiotics include doxycycline 50 to 100 mg bid and minocycline 50 to 100 mg bid.

In contrast to acne, antibiotics can usually be stopped. Reasons for efficacy of antibiotics are unclear given the absence of evidence of infection. Topical pimecrolimus (for people > age 2 yr) also reduces disease severity. Isotretinoin has been successfully used to treat granulomatous perioral dermatitis.

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