If you struggle with rough “chicken skin” on your arms or thighs, or anywhere else on your body, you’re not alone. Characterized by small red or white bumps that appear in patches, keratosis pilaris (KP) is a completely benign, but ultimately unsightly chronic skin condition. It’s also extremely common, with nearly 40% of adults experiencing KP at some point.
According to New York dermatologist, Michelle Henry, MD, keratosis pilaris is caused by a build-up of a protein called keratin. “keratosis pilaris (KP) is a skin condition that leads to the development of rough, small bumps on the skin,” Dr. Henry explains. “It is caused by an accumulation of keratin around hair follicles, a protein that safeguards the skin against infections and other harmful elements.”
Usually, KP shows up as a rough patch of bumps on the back of the arms.
“KP often appears on the back of the arms, but it can also manifest in other body parts, including, rarely, under the breast,” Dr. Henry notes. “The exact cause of KP remains unknown, but individuals with dry skin or eczema are more susceptible to it.”
Where Does KP Comes From?
Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD explains that keratosis pilaris tends to run in the family, and gets worse when our bodies are experiencing a lot of changes. “It is caused by ineffective removal of dead skin and cells around hair follicles, but does have a genetic relationship and runs fairly strong in families,” Dr. Schlessinger says. “Additionally, it tends to be worse after pregnancy and during growth spurts.”
Davie, FL dermatologist Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, MD adds that KP does tend to flare when the skin barrier is not fully protected, which is why it can easily appear in those with eczema and other chronic skin conditions. “When the skin barrier is more vulnerable and dry, the skin pores in the area are more likely to clog up with skin flakes and create plugs and irritations,” Dr. Blyumin-Karasik explains. “For some individuals, it can progress to fluctuating breakouts, blemishes and eczema.”
It’s important to know that if you have KP, you’re not doing anything wrong.
Charlotte, NC dermatologist Gilly Munavalli, MD, explains that while the exact cause of KP isn’t known, we do know that it isn’t a hygiene issue. “Keratosis pilaris is usually hereditary in etiology and not related to any issues with hygiene or overall skin,” Dr. Munavalli explains. “The opening or ostia of the hair follicle has an abnormal piling of skin cells, what dermatologists call hyperkeratotic.”
Just because it’s benign and not a fault of hygiene, doesn’t mean it’s entirely without irritation, though.
“This results in visible bumps on the skin surface, including areas like the back of the arms and shoulders as well a variation appearing on the cheeks,” says Dr. Munavalli. “These bumps can be felt and seen. In some cases, they can even be inflamed, itchy, or very red.”
“While keratosis pilaris, or KP, poses no real health risk, it can be troublesome and irritating to my patients and many want to get rid of these bumps that typically show up on the cheeks, upper arms or thighs,” Dr. Schlessinger says.
The good news is that there are a lot of options to treat KP, and some of them are even in-office.
“If you’re looking to reduce the appearance of KP, there are various treatments available at a dermatologist’s office,” Dr. Henry explains. “These treatments include chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and laser therapy. Chemical peels use a solution to exfoliate the skin, while microdermabrasion removes the outer layer of dead skin cells using a device. Laser therapy, on the other hand, may reduce some of the associated redness.”
Plus, a dermatologist can assess your skin and give you their individualized recommendations. “It’s crucial to seek the advice of a dermatologist to select the most appropriate treatment that suits your individual needs,” Dr. Henry says.
If you are going to address KP on your own, it’s important to prioritize gentleness, explains New York dermatologist Elaine Kung, MD. “I am not a proponent of physical exfoliation for keratosis pilaris,” Dr. Kung says. “Physical exfoliation may result in a skin condition called lichen amyloidosis, which is a hardening and discoloration of the perifollicular area.”
When you’re looking for a gentle exfoliator, you’ll want to look for products that contain salicylic acid or APAs.
“You can also treat KP effectively at home using various methods,” Dr. Henry explains. “Gentle exfoliation can help to remove dead skin cells and decrease the appearance of bumps. You can use products containing salicylic acid or alpha-hydroxy acids, which can soften and smooth the skin.”
You’ll need to remember to prioritize hydration and moisture, though.
“Moisturizing is also essential since dry skin can worsen the appearance of KP,” says Dr. Henry. “Choose products with moisturizing ingredients like urea, lactic acid, or others, and avoid harsh soaps and hot water that can dry out the skin further.”
Dermatologist-Recommended KP Products
Glytone KP Kit ($75)
“I recommend the Glytone KP Kit to my patients since it comes with a glycolic acid body wash and exfoliating lotion that’s great for improving bumps and rough skin textures,” says Dr. Schlessinger.
Glytone relies on glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid that gently exfoliates those dead skin cells that cause KP bumps. Continued use helps reduce those bumps and the redness that comes along with it.
This is a 17.5% glycolic acid formula, which isn’t as heavy duty as a glycolic peel you might get a dermatologists office, but is still no joke. For treating body KP on the back of the arms or thighs, this is a great option, but you shouldn’t use it on your face, immediately after shaving, or hair removal.
This body lotion is formulated with 10% lactic acid (AHA), to provide the gentleness of a chemical exfoliant while also hydrating and soothing irritated skin. That’s why it’s on Dr. Kung’s list of recommendations for treating body KP.
“The lactic acid and urea helps smooth out the skin texture,” Dr. Kung explains. “Feverfew extract and licorice extract also helps reduce redness and inflammation; ceramides and oat helps the skin retain moisture.”
It’s important to note that while you’re using some chemical exfoliants, your skin can become more sensitive to UV light. First Aid Beauty recommends taking extra sun-protection steps while you’re smoothing down your KP bumps.
Recommended by Dr. Blyumin-Karasik as a daily moisturizer, this CeraVe SA Cream is a gentle exfoliator for KP while providing hydration for hours after application. “A daily hydrating and blemish-reducing moisturizer can improve the KP flares,” Dr. Blyumin-Karasik explains.
This moisturizing cream is formulated with salicylic acid, and is gentle enough to use on the face. Packed with three ceramides that provide all-day hydration, this fragrance-free moisturizer is an excellent option for any area you may be experiencing KP bumps. Just like many chemical exfoliants, it’s important to take extra steps to protect yourself from the sun while using this product.
According to Dr. Kung, the “15% lactic acid along with moisturizing ingredients help smoothen out skin texture while locking in moisture.” That’s why she recommends AmLactin’s KP formula, which is a moisturizer you can use twice a day on body KP.
While this formula is a bit too strong for the face, it’s perfect for treating stubborn areas of KP on the arms or thighs. In studies on lactic acid, referenced by AmLactin, they found that a concentration greater than 10% was needed to see significant results on body KP.
This moisturizer has a non-greasy formula and easily absorbs into skin. Again, you want to make sure you’re following up with sunscreen while using this product.
Stamina Serum ($54)
According to Dr. Blyumin-Karasik, “A daily soothing skin serum can reduce skin inflammation and microbes disrupting the vulnerable skin barrier around affected pores and smooth the skin.”
This overnight serum does exactly that, which is why she recommends it for nightly use to help reduce the appearance of KP bumps. This would be a multi-tasker in your skin care kit, as her very own Stamina Serum tackles acne and redness as well as providing texture improvements.
Gentle enough to use on the face, this formula employs hypochlorous acid to help restore the skin’s natural homeostasis, reducing irritation and inflammation.
This set is Dr. Schlessinger’s very own and one he recommends to help tackle the appearance of KP on the face. “While this won’t ‘cure’ this condition, it does improve it significantly,” Dr. Schlessinger explains.
It does so by focusing on decongesting pores, reducing those keratin plugs that create KP in the first place. This set is a combination of salicylic and glycolic acids in low concentrations to ensure they’re gentle enough for the delicate skin of the face.
This effective combination also helps treat and control breakouts, and it does so without stripping your skin and leaving it dry.