What to Know About Strawberry Legs, According to a Dermatologist
If you could compile a list of all the skin-care conditions named after foods and drinks, you’d have a surprising amount of items in your kitchen checked off. Those tiny red moles on your chest and back are cheekily called cherry angiomas. The coffee-colored spots you’ve had inked on seemingly random parts of your body since your first day of life are dubbed café au lait macules (though you probably call them birthmarks). And those mini black spots that are dotted up and down your calves and thighs? That’s a case of strawberry legs.
What causes strawberry legs?
Named after—you guessed it—the appearance of strawberries’ skin, strawberry legs are typically characterized by small black dots on the legs and, depending on the cause, a change in the texture of the skin, says Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D., a dermatologist based in New York City.
There’s no one single scenario that’s absolutely responsible for making your legs look like they’re sprinkled with little poppyseeds. But most often, it boils down to an enlarged appearance of the hair follicle or clogged pores, says Dr. Garshick. There could even be more than one factor at hand. “Sometimes it’s a blend of multiple scenarios,” she says. “Even though you’re able to tease it out into different conditions, some people end up having an overlap.”
At the most basic level, strawberry legs can occur if you have fair skin and dark, coarse hair. Because of that contrast, you might be able to see the hair follicle below the skin, which creates the appearance of small, seedy dots, says Dr. Garshick. But if your leg hair is so blonde it’s nearly invisible, clogged pores might be the culprit. When a pore is enlarged, excess oil, dirt, and bacteria are trapped inside, and it’s exposed to the air, all of the gunk can become oxidized and look darker, says Dr. Garshick. And if you’ve got a *ton* of those grime-filled pores on your lower half, you’ve got a case of strawberry legs.
When those minuscule dots are partnered with rough, bumpy skin, there could be other conditions behind your strawberry legs—one of which is keratosis pilaris. Also known as chicken skin, keratosis pilaris causes the skin to develop bumps and coarse textures, typically on the arms and legs. When dead skin cells and keratin (a protein that helps form your skin, hair, and nails) get trapped inside the hair follicle, a little bump develops, and a collection of bumps can change the skin texture, says Dr. Garshick. That dead skin and keratin can make the hair follicle inflamed, and your symptoms can worsen if the skin is dry, she explains.
Other situations that can seriously inflame your hair follicles and cause strawberry legs: folliculitis and pseudofolliculitis. Folliculitis develops when a bacterial or fungal infection takes place in the hair follicle, leading to redness or pustules (re: small, white bumps) around the follicle, says Dr. Garshick. And it’s not all that difficult for an infection to develop—wearing super tight leggings, frequently working out without hopping in the shower immediately after, and friction can all be culprits of this skin concern. Similar to folliculitis, pseudofolliculitis is a skin condition marked by red bumps around inflamed hair follicles and ingrown hairs, usually due to injury of the follicle, says Dr. Garschik. The main offender he is shaving and waxing.
Typically, there’s no cause for concern to your health if you have strawberry legs, but you can get yourself into long-term trouble if you start picking at the skin in an unwinnable attempt to eliminate them. The skin on your legs may scar easily, so discoloration can occur and take a long time to disappear, says Dr. Garshick. Still, having a bacterial or fungal infection from folliculitis may require treatment from a dermatologist or prescribed medications, she says. “If you have any bumps that are persistent and you’ve tried routine over-the-counter things, and it’s not helping, it's worth seeing a dermatologist,” she says.
How to Get Rid of Strawberry Legs
Your course of action for tackling strawberry legs all depends on the cause. If you’re dealing with keratosis pilaris or grimy comedones, your best bet is to exfoliate the skin and whisk away the dead skin cells and gunk, says Dr. Garshick. “What’s important, though, is not just getting rid of the dead skin cells by using a harsh scrub, as the skin gets irritated easily,” she adds. “If you use a harsh scrub. it would potentially make it worse.” Instead, she recommends using a gentle exfoliator, such as Dove Gentle Exfoliating Body Wash (Buy It, $6, amazon.com) or the Glytone KP Kit (Buy It, $68, amazon.com), a two-step kit containing a glycolic acid chemical exfoliating body wash and moisturizing body lotion to use post-shower.
Moisturizing post-exfoliation is also key. For a one-two punch of exfoliation and hydration, try CeraVe’s SA Lotion for Rough & Bumpy Skin (Buy It, $16, amazon.com), which contains salicylic acid to clear any gunk out of the pores and to smooth the skin, or AmLactin Daily Moisturizing Lotion (Buy It, $22, amazon.com), which has lactic acid to get the same job done. “The goal here is really to get rid of dead skin cells, but still hydrate to keep it soft and smooth,” says Dr. Garshick.
If you’ve got a case of folliculitis or pseudofolliculitis, Dr. Garshick recommends an over-the-counter medicated body wash to banish any bacterial or fungal issue, like Humane’s Acne Wash (Buy It, $22, amazon.com) or PanOxyl’s Acne Foaming Wash (Buy It, $10, amazon.com), which both use benzoyl peroxide to kill bacteria, unclog pores, and reduce inflammation. If your symptoms still aren’t clearing up, talk to a dermatologist about prescription-strength options, she says.
For those who simply have visible hair follicles, laser hair removal is the main course of treatment to help minimize their appearance, says Dr. Garshick. This high-tech technique targets the hair follicle and eliminates the hair at the root, which thus makes its pigment disappear. “We don’t have the ability to completely eliminate every single hair, but certainly it helps reduce the density, and for somebody who feels the hair follicles are more visible, it can be helpful for that,” she explains. (Related: I Was ~This Close~ to Lasering Off My Pubes for Life—Here's What Stopped Me)
How to Prevent Strawberry Legs
Just like body hair, acne, and freckles, strawberry legs may be just one of your entirely normal physical features—and there's no reason you can't rock that mini-skirt. But if the appearance does bother you, and you want to make them less noticeable or get rid of them altogether, you've got a few options.
Depending on the cause, strawberry legs aren’t really completely preventable—but there are some steps you can take to manage the appearance. Take keratosis pilaris, for example: “Even though some people can be bothered by it, there’s nothing really that you can do to prevent it because for some people it can be considered genetic,” says Dr. Garshick. “Some people just have it that way, but there’s nothing wrong with them. Just because it may not feel like your skin in other places, it is inherently ‘normal’ skin.” Still, if you’re not consistent with your exfoliating and moisturizing routine, your bumps could become more noticeable—especially in the dry winter months, she says.
To keep the condition in check, try exfoliating a few times a week and following up with a moisturizer to keep skin soft and well-nourished. Sticking to good hygiene practices can also make a difference: Take your sweaty, tight-fitting clothes off right after you finish your workout to cut the chances that your pores get clogged. And if your strawberry legs are a result of comedones, all of these practices will help prevent that skin condition, too.
Strawberry legs caused by visible hair follicles are also tricky to totally prevent, save for laser hair removal. The key to making those small black dots less eye-catching, though, is to ease inflammation and irritation to the skin and hair follicle. Shaving usually causes some irritation to the skin: Your razor often cuts the hair at an angle, so when it tries to grow back in, it can lead to more inflammation than if it were sliced straight across. That, combined with the irritation of running your razor over your legs without moisturizing shaving cream or with too hot of water, can actually make the hair follicle *more* visible, says Dr. Garshick. Instead, use hydrating shaving creams or try hair removal creams, which won’t cause additional “injury” to the hair follicle, she says.
On the flip side, preventing folliculitis and pseudofolliculitis—and the ensuing strawberry legs—is as easy as following the aforementioned hygienic practices and switching up your shaving routine. For starters, shave with the grain—not against it—to avoid bacterial infections or ingrown hairs that can cause strawberry legs. And if you’ve been using the same blade for the last four months (guilty!), it’s time to swap it out to reduce your risk of developing ingrown hairs and bumps from an uneven shave or infections from bacteria sneaking into any nicks and cuts. “My rule of thumb for people: Whatever you’re doing, change [your razor] more frequently,” says Dr. Garshick. This especially applies if you feel like you’re working harder to get a solid shave than you used to or if the blade starts to feel uncomfortable on the skin, she adds. If you’re super prone to ingrown hairs, using a razor that doesn’t give a super close shave—such as Bump Fighter Men’s Disposable Razors (Buy It, $10, amazon.com)—could help reduce the chances of one cropping up too. “The closer the shave becomes with any razor, the more likely you are to experience extra irritation, says Dr. Garshick.
And remember: No matter what’s causing your strawberry legs or how easy or unlikely they are to completely get rid of, know that they’re totally normal and won't give you too much trouble health-wise. So if you were blessed with thick and bold leg hair or a few rough patches of skin across your thighs, why not welcome your strawberry legs with open arms, just like you’d do with your peachy booty.