What Is Keratosis Pilaris?
Keratosis pilaris is a common skin condition that causes small bumps on the skin. The bumps are harmless plugs of dead skin cells that clog pores. They may feel rough, scaly and pointed.
The condition usually worsens in winter when skin is drier and may disappear during the summer. In people who live in a dry climate or frequently swim in a pool (which dries out the skin), the bumps may be present year-round.
Anyone can develop keratosis pilaris, but it’s most common in teenagers. It often improves over time.
Keratosis Pilaris Symptoms
Keratosis pilaris can resemble goosebumps or “chicken skin” and may be mistaken for small pimples. Dry skin can make the bumps more noticeable. In teens and adults, keratosis pilaris typically occurs on the upper arms (the most common location), the front of the thighs or the buttocks. Young children also tend to develop it on their cheeks.
The bumps may be the same shade as your skin or they may be white, red, pink-purple (in people with fair skin) or brown-black (in people with dark skin).
Keratosis pilaris isn’t painful but it can be itchy.
Keratosis Pilaris Causes
Keratosis pilaris happens when, for reasons unknown, pores become clogged by dead skin cells — specifically, by keratin, the main protein the top layer of skin. You are more likely to develop it if a close blood relative has it.
Keratosis pilaris is associated with certain other health conditions, including asthma, hay fever, eczema, ichthyosis vulgaris (a condition that causes extremely dry, thick and scaly skin), obesity, malnutrition and Down syndrome. Women are slightly more prone to it than men.
Keratosis Pilaris Treatment
Keratosis pilaris isn’t harmful, so treatment isn’t necessary, but if the appearance of the bumps bothers you or they itch, see a dermatologist. The condition can’t be cured, but there are ways to relieve it.
Your dermatologist may suggest a mild chemical peel, which exfoliates the skin and makes it appear smoother, or topical retinoids, which also exfoliate the skin. Sometimes a corticosteroid cream is prescribed to soften the bumps and reduce redness.
If these treatments don’t work, light or laser therapy may be helpful. Depending on the type of light or laser used, the treatments can reduce swelling and redness or improve the skin’s texture and reduce discoloration.
Keratosis Pilaris Prevention
Keratosis pilaris isn’t preventable, but there are steps you can take at home to manage it.
Take quick showers. Try to limit them to 5 to 10 minutes and use lukewarm water, not hot. Long, hot showers dry out the skin and can cause keratosis pilaris to flare.
Use a mild, fragrance free cleanser. The goal is to avoid skin irritation.
Moisturize often. Look for a thick, oil-free cream, ideally one that contains lactic acid or urea for gentle exfoliation. Apply it after you shower when your skin is damp and whenever your skin feels dry.
Exfoliate your skin. Once a week, gently exfoliate your skin with an exfoliating product, such as a body scrub or exfoliating body wash, that contains a chemical exfoliant. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, urea or a retinoid. These products are called keratolytics and may be labeled for bumpy skin.
Change your razor. Shaving can cause more bumps. If you need to shave the affected area, choose a single-blade razor instead of a multi-blade razor, which is more likely to irritate the skin and cause ingrown hairs. Don’t wax the area.
Run a humidifier. Adding moisture to the air can help prevent dry skin.
Avoid tight clothing. Snug styles may create friction that irritates the bumps.