Dermatologists explain what causes keratosis pilaris, and share insight into how to get rid of those bumps on your arms (or elsewhere).

By Melanie Rud
January 24, 2020
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There's a good chance that if you clicked on this you either have or have had keratosis pilaris...or know someone who does and is constantly trying to get rid of it. Also known as KP, keratosis pilaris is often called 'chicken skin' and is a very common skin condition, which manifests as small, red bumps that can pop up anywhere on the body. However, keratosis pilaris is most often found on the arms and legs.

The bad news? There's no cure for keratosis pilaris. The good news? There are easy things you can do to help manage the symptoms and decrease the appearance of these bumps. Ahead, experts explain what keratosis pilaris is exactly, weigh in on keratosis pilaris causes, and share the best strategies for treating keratosis pilaris' bothersome bumps on arms and beyond. (Related: Reasons Why You Might Have Rough and Bumpy Skin)

What is keratosis pilaris?

"Keratosis pilaris is a skin condition that causes the skin to develop red bumps, dry patches, and textures," explains Gretchen Frieling, M.D., a triple board-certified dermatopathologist in the Boston area. "It isn't painful or itchy, and has no repercussions on your overall health," adds Dr. Frieling. So, if you're dealing with keratosis pilaris and the often-accompanying bumps on arms, hopefully the fact that it's pretty much harmless should make you feel a little bit better. You should also know that you're not alone; keratosis pilaris can be seen in about 30 to 50 percent of adults and 50 to 80 percent of children, says dermatologist Priyanka Gumaste, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group in Hoboken, NJ.

What causes keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris bumps are caused by a build-up of dead skin cells and keratin (a protein that makes up your skin, hair, and nails) that blocks the hair follicles, but why this happens isn't completely understood, says Dr. Gumaste. "It's thought to be due to an abnormality in the process by which skin cells mature," she says. "Rather than exfoliating and falling off the skin, dead skin cells plug the hair follicle, leading to rough bumps." Genetics do seem to play a role—it's a common consensus that if one person has it, it will appear again within the family—and people with generally dry skin can also be predisposed to keratosis pilaris, adds Dr. Frieling. (Related: How to Decode Skin Conditions, Rashes, and Bumps On Your Vagina)

Where does keratosis pilaris appear?

The most commons spots for keratosis pilaris are the arms and legs, specifically the upper arms (usually on the back of the arms) and the thighs, as well as the butt. In children, it often appears on the cheeks. But why keratosis pilaris pops up on one area over another is unknown, says Dr. Gumaste. (Related: Iskra Lawrence Says Her Keratosis Pilaris Made Her "Hate" the Skin On Her Arms.)

What is the best keratosis pilaris treatment?

While there's no cure for keratosis pilaris, "for many patients, the condition actually will subside on its own over time," says Dr. Frieling. If you're looking for a solution now, there are ways you can treat and manage the bumps on arms and legs and rough skin, she says. Step one, resist the urge to squeeze or scratch at the bumps because that's just going to irritate the skin, she adds.

The end game is to smooth and soften the skin, which is why both experts agree that your best move is to use an exfoliating moisturizer; this will give you both a hefty dose of hydration, as well as loosen and prevent the build-up of the dead cells that lead to those bumps. Dr. Gumaste suggests looking for a formula that contains urea, a chemical exfoliant, such as Eucerin Roughness Relief Lotion (Buy It, $7, walmart.com). Another good keratosis pilaris lotion is Dermadoctor KP Duty Moisturizing Therapy (Buy It, $27, ulta.com) which combines urea with exfoliating glycolic acid. Use any exfoliating lotion twice daily, and you should start to see results in several days, says Dr. Gumaste. (Related: The 10 Best Body Lotions for Dry Skin)

You can also try using an exfoliating scrub on keratosis pilaris-prone spots. Try First Aid Beauty KP Bump Eraser Body Scrub with 10% AHA (Buy It, $26, sephora.com). It relies on both glycolic and lactic acid for chemical exfoliation, as well as pumice buffing beads to physically slough off dead skin cells. The only caveat: You want to use it only once or twice per week to avoid irritating your skin and making it look worse, rather than better. And if nothing over-the-counter seems to be helping, see your dermatologist to discuss a prescription-strength cream, suggests Dr. Frieling.

The bottom line on keratosis pilaris is that this skin condition might be unsightly and irksome, but there are ways that you can help diminish the keratosis pilaris bumps on arms and legs. And, at the end of the day, remember that even though it's an annoying aesthetic issue, it's not anything that's going to be detrimental to your overall skin health.

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