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What is keratosis pilaris and what can you do for it?

Those patches of red, bumpy skin on your arms have a name—and a solution

What is keratosis pilaris and what can you do for it? Credit: Getty Images / Hazal Ak

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Your skin can experience bumps, redness, and rough patches for a number of reasons. Any of these can occur from changes in the weather or in your skincare routine, but if you have keratosis pilaris, a common skin condition endearingly nicknamed “chicken skin” or “goose flesh” and found on the upper outer arms and thighs, this texture may remain constant and cause you some discomfort or even embarrassment. To make sense of how you can identify and treat this condition, we spoke with Dr. Isha Tiernan, a dermatologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

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What is keratosis pilaris and what causes it?

Keratosis pilaris on skin.
Credit: Getty Images / Lavizzara

Keratosis pilaris is hereditary and anyone can develop it.

Keratosis pilaris (KP) is a hereditary skin condition that’s marked by hair follicles that become clogged with dead skin. The reason it appears most commonly on the arms and legs is because those areas have plenty of hair follicles, but it can occur on the face and other parts of the body.

As for what causes KP, Tiernan says it’s a dominant gene (“autosomal dominant,” the doctor explains), so a parent or sibling likely also has it. Not everyone experiences the same degree of severity, though, so your family member’s experience with KP is not indicative of how you’ll experience it. Explains Tiernan: “Some people may not even realize it. It may just be more of a nuisance, like if they’re shaving and they’re noticing they have some extra bumpy skin. For other people, it can be all-consuming. It can be very bothersome, cosmetically bothersome.”

How can you identify keratosis pilaris on your skin?

Keratosis pilaris on skin.
Credit: Getty Images / IHUAN

Keratosis pilaris commonly appears as red bumps on the upper arms and legs.

Keratosis pilaris is marked by red, dry, and bumpy skin that’s otherwise not painful or uncomfortable (though in more severe cases, or if the skin is not well moisturized, it may feel itchy). KP also gets better in the summertime and worse in the winter because it responds to dryness, so if you notice the bumps on your skin correlating to the weather, that’s another sign that it could be keratosis pilaris. You may also notice that you have trouble shaving over the area, or that when you shave, the bumps are no less prominent. “When people shave, they're expecting kind of smooth skin at the end of it all and it can be really frustrating when they have these bumps that are left behind,” Tiernan says. “But those are actually just normal plugged skin cells from this condition.”

The good news: “This condition tends to be worse in childhood and adolescence and then it does tend to improve with age in general,” she says. It’s unclear why KP gets better with age, but it’s the condition’s historical pattern.

How can you treat keratosis pilaris with moisturizers?

A woman moisturizing her legs.
Credit: Getty Images / Natalya Sambulova

Prevent your keratosis pilaris at bay with moisturizer.

Still, there are proactive steps you can take to lessen the symptoms of keratosis pilaris if you so desire. First, you want to keep your skin moisturized, whether that means using a creamy body wash, a body oil, or a moisturizer—or all three.

If you’re after a moisturizer to ward off dryness and itchiness, Tiernan says to focus on the texture rather than the ingredients. “I would go with something that's more cream-based or oily,” Tiernan says. “I usually tell people [to] look for things that are in jars, as opposed to pump bottles, because the pump bottles, those are often lotions and lotions tend to have a higher alcohol content.” One fan-favorite option that fills the bill is the Cerave Moisturizing Cream, which hydrates with hyaluronic acid and protects the skin barrier with ceramides (fatty lipids on the outermost layer of the epidermis).

What if keratosis pilaris doesn’t improve from just moisturizing?

A woman scrubbing her legs.
Credit: Getty Images / artursfoto

Use an exfoliant on your keratosis pilaris to buff away dead skin cells.

At the same time, or if you don’t get desired results from just moisturizing, you can include an exfoliant in your routine, whether it’s physical or chemical. If you prefer the abrasive sensation and immediate satisfaction of a physical exfoliation, Tiernan says you can use something gentle, like a loofa, brush, or washcloth. “We don’t want people to be overly scrubbing their skin because that can lead to other problems and that can actually aggravate the skin,” she explains.

For an exfoliation option that keeps working even after you’ve stepped out of the shower, go with a chemical exfoliant. You want to choose an ingredient that’s a “keratolytic,” meaning it breaks up the keratin and dead skin cells clogging the pores. These include BHAs like salicylic acid or AHAs like lactic and glycolic acids. “Anything that can help unplug those hair follicles can help with this condition,” Tiernan says. Body washes or lotions containing these ingredients are great options for treating KP, but if you notice the skin gets even more dry or tight, reduce your usage.

For a product that encompasses both types of exfoliation, try the First Aid Beauty KP Bump Eraser Body Scrub Exfoliant. With over 4,000 Amazon reviews and a 4.5-star rating, this has a gritty texture to buff away dead skin cells and uses glycolic and lactic acids to unclog the pores.

For a chemical-only exfoliant option, try the Neutrogena Body Clear Acne Body Wash, which has over 500 Walmart reviews and a 4.1-star rating. This wash addresses congested skin with salicylic acid and combats dryness with glycerin.

When should you see a doctor for keratosis pilaris?

A man scratching his arm.
Credit: Getty Images / Sergey Granev

If your keratosis pilaris doesn't respond to you moisturizing and exfoliating, or if it's very uncomfortable, see a dermatologist.

If you see no improvement from at-home treatments, the skin becomes increasingly more uncomfortable or angry-looking, or if the discomfort causes you to pick at your skin, see a dermatologist, who can prescribe a short-term, mild corticosteroid to address the symptoms.

Tiernan says the most important thing to remember is that keratosis pilaris is very common. “Probably everyone knows someone who has it and they may very well [also] have it,” she says. And while it’s not curable, it’s certainly manageable with help from products or a dermatologist.

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