The skin barrier, located in the stratum corneum, is influenced mainly by the lipid and protein composition of this layer. In eczematous diseases impairment of the skin barrier is thought to be of prime importance. Topical anti-inflammatory drugs and emollients are the most widely used eczema treatments. The aim of this study was to examine the effects of topically applied corticosteroid, tacrolimus and emollient on stratum corneum lipids and barrier parameters. Nineteen healthy volunteers participated in the study. Both forearms of the subjects were divided into four areas, which were treated twice daily for one week with betamethasone, tacrolimus, emollient, or left untreated, respectively. After one week each area was challenged with a 24 h sodium lauryl sulphate patch test. The lipids were collected using the cyanoacrylate method and evaluated by high performance thin layer chromatography. For evaluation of the skin barrier, transepidermal water loss, erythema and electrical capacitance were measured. The ceramide/cholesterol ratio was increased in betamethasone- (p = 0.008) and tacrolimus-treated (p = 0.025) skin compared with emollient-treated skin. No differences in ceramide subgroups were found between treatment regimes. Pretreatment with betamethasone (p = 0.01) or with tacrolimus (p = 0.001) causes a decreased inflammatory response to sodium lauryl sulphate compared with emollient. In conclusion, treatment with betamethasone and tacrolimus has a positive effect on the ceramide/cholesterol ratio and susceptibility to irritant reaction compared with an emollient.