Keratosis Pilaris Symptoms, Prevention, And Treatment Options

Written by Laura Buford, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on March 14, 2023 No Comments

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Keratosis Pilaris (KP) is a common skin condition which manifests as tiny bumps. The bumps can form rough patches of skin, and may appear either red or reddish brown in color. The condition is completely harmless, although the look and feel of it is bothersome to most people.

Anyone can be affected by KP, including adults, but it is most common in infants, young children and teenagers. There is no cure for the chronic condition, but symptoms and flare-ups can be managed. People who experience KP in their youth often outgrow it in adulthood.

What Are the Symptoms of Keratosis Pilaris

The symptoms of Keratosis Pilaris include rough patches of tiny bumps on the skin, resembling pimples or goosebumps. The condition is also referred to as ‘chicken skin’ for its resemblance to the plucked skin of a chicken.

  • Clusters of tiny raised bumps
  • Pink, red, brown or black bumps (depending on skin tone)
  • Dry, itchy or irritated skin
  • Patches of rough-feeling skin

KP is not contagious or harmful. The bumps typically do not cause pain, although they can lead to itch or irritation.

Where Does Keratosis Pilaris Occur

KP can occur anywhere on the body where there are hair follicles. It most commonly appears on the thighs and upper arms, although it can also extend to the buttocks, lower legs and forearms. In children, KP sometimes appears on the trunk and face, especially the cheeks.

What Causes Keratosis Pilaris?

Keratosis Pilaris is a hereditary skin condition that’s caused when the skin cells around pores harden. This process is called keratinization, hence the name Keratosis.

Keratin is a hair protein that’s made in our skin cells. When this protein builds up in excess, keratinization occurs. This is the same process that leads to calluses and corns. In the case of KP, skin cells harden around hair follicles, resulting in tiny raised bumps.

The harmless condition is considered chronic, although many people cease to experience flare ups after the age of 30.

Who Is Most Susceptible to Developing Keratosis Pilaris

Keratosis Pilaris can occur in anyone, but it’s most common in infants, children and adolescents. When the condition is seen in adults, it typically flares with pregnancy, or appears in those with dry skin, sensitive skin. Those with light skin are more susceptible, as are people with other skin issues, such as eczema.

  • Genetics: The exact cause of KP is unknown, although it appears to be genetic. Those who develop Keratosis Pilaris generally have one or more family members with the same skin condition.
  • Dry Skin: Those with dry skin are more susceptible to KP, as are those with other chronic skin issues such as eczema or atopic dermatitis. It’s common to experience more flare-ups in the drier, winter months.
  • Hormones: KP often flares as hormones change during adolescence and pregnancy.
  • Inflammation: KP is more common in those who have health issues related to systemic inflammation, such as allergies or asthma.

Some grow out of keratosis pilaris as they get older, while others experience flare ups over the course of their lifetime.

Can Keratosis Pilaris Be Prevented?

As a largely hereditary condition, Keratosis Pilaris cannot be prevented. However, there may be ways to minimize flare ups, including the following:

  • Cleanse Skin Gently: A gentle skin care routine may help prevent keratin from clogging pores. Use non-comedogenic skin care products with mild ingredients and keep skin well moisturized.
  • Exfoliate: Gently exfoliating rough patches of skin can help release dead skin cells and clear pores. Avoid harsh scrubbing and instead, choose a chemically exfoliating product that includes AHAs, such as glycolic acid, or BHAs, like salicylic acid.
  • Hydrate: Keeping skin well moisturized can help prevent flare ups. Bumps are also less noticeable on well moisturized skin. Choose a face and body moisturizer containing hyaluronic acid, glycerin or ceramides to help hold water against the skin.

In addition to making the above skin care changes, a few lifestyle changes can help manage the condition.

  • Avoid Hot Showers: Very hot or long showers can dry skin, aggravating flare-ups. Instead, try soaking in a short, warm bath to help unclog pores.
  • Avoid Tight Clothing: Tight clothing can irritate skin and clog pores by keeping sweat trapped against the body. Loose, natural fiber clothing may help reduce flare ups.
  • Use Humidifiers: In dry, colder months using a humidifier can help keep skin moisturized, alleviating KP.

Keratosis Pilaris Treatment Options 

Keratosis Pilaris is harmless and does not need to be treated. That said, some treatments may help reduce the appearance of bumps or minimize the frequency of flare ups. If the above skin care and lifestyle changes aren’t effective, you may consider the following:

  • Prescription-Strength Topicals: Corticosteroid creams, retinoids and other topicals can address inflammation and redness, minimizing the appearance of bumps.
  • Laser Therapy: Laser and light therapies may help smooth skin texture, reduce redness and minimize inflammation.
  • Microdermabrasion: Microdermabrasion is a skin resurfacing treatment which can help remove dead skin cells, unclog pores, and encourage rejuvenation.

Keratosis is notoriously difficult to treat. The above methods typically require repeated treatments before improvements are visible.

Laura Buford, MD

Laura Buford, MD attended medical school at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, where she earned a Doctor of Medicine with Special Distinction. Dr. Buford is active in various medical organizations including the American Academy of Dermatology, the Texas Medical Association, and the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. Her professional interests include adult and pediatric medical dermatology, skin cancer prevention and treatment, and cosmetic dermatology.

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