Whether an itch is related to a summertime bug bite, dry skin, or an unfortunate encounter with poison ivy, the urge to scratch it can be uncontrollable. And it's fine to indulge in a bit of gentle scratching to tame the uncomfortable sensation of itchy skin.

But if you find yourself scratching to the point of distraction, or so much that you're damaging your skin—which can allow bacteria in—you may be on the lookout for strategies to stop the itch.

Should you slather on one of the many over-the-counter topical anti-itch products that line drugstore shelves?

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“If you choose the right product for your particular itching problem and follow label directions, OTC anti-itch creams, gels and lotions can be very effective,” says Gil Yosipovitch, M.D., a professor of dermatology at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami and director of the Miami Itch Center. And most of the time, the risk of side effects is low, as long as you use them properly.  

Here's what Yosipovitch and other experts advise.

Figure Out What's Triggering Your Itch

The particular type of product you choose should depend in large part on what's causing your itch.

"Summer brings out poison ivy and other itch-inducing plants, lots of bugs, and, of course, sunburn," says Jessica Krant, M.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City and member of Consumer Reports’ medical advisory board.

Fungal infections and contact allergies (the usually short-lived rashy reactions some people have from substances such as cosmetics or certain fabrics or metals) are among the other common summer itch-causers. And while dry skin is a far more frequent problem in cold weather, it can crop up now as well.

If you're unsure why you're itching or you're extremely uncomfortable—unable to sleep through the night because of the need to scratch, for instance—check in with your doctor.

"Itching is one of the most common complaints in visits to a dermatologist, but itching is caused by so many different things it’s hard to have one set protocol or method for addressing it," Krant says. "A careful history and physical exam by the dermatologist can go a long way in identifying the true cause and fixing it as fast as possible."   

Try a Couple of Simple Steps First

Most of the above will resolve on their own within a few days. In the meantime, try this home remedy from Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser: "For a small area that feels really itchy, put an ice pack on the skin until it feels numb," he says. "You've healed yourself for at least a couple of hours."

And no matter what's behind the itch, using a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer (look for lanolin or glycerin on the label) two to three times a day could help.  

If it's simple dryness causing your itch, use soaps and body washes that are mild, unscented, and free of alcohol. Since soap and water can wash away protective skin-surface oils, keep baths and showers short, and use tepid water. Moisturize afterward, while skin is still slightly damp.

What's in Those Anti-Itch Creams?

 You can try an OTC itch reliever right away for bug bites and rashes. For dry skin, “If gentle skin care and plenty of moisturizer are not helping your itch, it may be time to try an OTC anti-itch product," says Krant. Here, the active ingredients you're likely to see on labels and how to choose wisely:   

Hydrocortisone: The 1 percent strength of this steroid cream, which eases itch by reducing inflammation, is in a slew of OTC itch products, such as Aveeno 1% Hydrocortisone Anti-Itch Relief Cream, Cortizone 10 Anti-Itch Ointment, and generics.

“If clearing up dry skin doesn’t reduce the need to scratch in a few days, hydrocortisone is a good choice," says itch researcher Ethan Lerner, M.D., Ph.D., and associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. "It’s also good for itchy rashes—such as skin reactions due to nickel in jewelry, buckles and snaps on clothing and to irritants in laundry products.” Drugstore hydrocortisone can help to soothe anal itching and discomfort from psoriasis and eczema as well. 

But don't rely on hydrocortisone for more than two weeks at a time. "If used too often and for too long, hydrocortisone will thin the skin, making it subject to bruising and black and blue marks and even more itching," says Lipman.

While hydrocortisone is effective, Lipman prefers it for small itchy areas (silver-dollar-sized) and calamine or diphenhydramine (see below) for larger areas. "They're less noxious to the skin," he says.

Skip hydrocortisone for itching around your toes or in your vaginal area or groin, which might be caused by a fungal infection. “Corticosteroids can actually make these infections worse by reducing immunity so the fungus can thrive,” says Lerner. “Choose an antifungal product designed for your itching problem instead.”

Calamine: Old-fashioned calamine lotion, found in products such as Caladryl Skin Protectant Lotion and generics, is less ubiquitous than hydrocortisone. But this mixture of zinc oxide and ferric oxide is very effective for relieving itch and drying out blistery rashes such as poison ivy, oak, and sumac, Lerner says. It can also help with insect bites and stings

Diphenhydramine: Itch creams, gels, and sprays containing this antihistamine, such as Benadryl Extra Strength Anti Itch Cream and generics, work by blocking the itchy effects of histamine, a compound produced in the skin during an allergic reaction.

Topical diphenhydramine is sometimes recommended for short-term relief from itches related to bug bite or hives, but both Lerner and Yosipovitch caution that it can irritate skin and that some people are allergic to it.

“An OTC hydrocortisone cream will work just as well for bug bites and contact allergies,” Lerner says.

Pramoxine: This mild anesthetic is often added to anti-itch products that also contain hydrocortisone or other active ingredients, such as Gold Bond Medicated Anti-Itch Lotion and generics. It’s often found in products for anal itching, as well as in general-use anti-itch creams. “It’s effective for relieving pain and itching; you may find it in products for insect bites, poison ivy, oak, or sumac, and for hemorrhoids,” Yosipovitch says.

Menthol: This minty ingredient, found in products such as Eucerin Calming Itch-Relief Treatment and generics, activates nerve fibers that send cool, icy sensations to the brain, distracting you from the itch, Yosipovitch says.

“Menthol can be very effective for itchy skin, but it’s not for everybody,” he notes. “If standing in a cold shower relieves your itch, menthol may work for you. Products with eucalyptus or camphor have similar effects but I’m more hesitant with these. They may aggravate itching.”

When to See the Doctor

Make an appointment if your discomfort hasn't resolved with home treatments after several days, you need a drugstore itch cream for more than two weeks, have severe itching and can’t pinpoint the cause, or if your skin is red, warm, swollen, or leaking fluid, or if itching is generalized or covers large areas of skin.

"Also, keep in mind that some itchy rashes may contain bacterial or fungal infections, which are not cured by topical steroids, and may in fact be partially masked, confusing the picture," says Krant. "For this reason, anything that does not fully get better in a few days should be seen by a dermatologist for safety."