What is Keratosis Pilaris?

If you have red, brown or flesh colored bumps on the back of your arms, back, face or legs it’s likely you have a condition known as ‘Keratosis Pilaris’.

It’s commonly referred to as “chicken skin” and can resemble tiny pimples, sometimes with a fine hair coming out of it.

Here’s what it looks like on someone’s arm with lighter skin, and on the thigh of a person with darker skin.

It is believed to be caused by either an excess of keratin, which is a protein which helps provide structure to the skin, or a reduced ability to exfoliate keratin.

Keratin helps provide structure to the skin as well as waterproof it. Keratin also makes up our hair and nails. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, keratin in those with keratosis pilaris clogs pores, and can sometimes also trap hair inside follicles.

The condition is hereditary, so it’s likely one of your parents had it in their youth. The condition can also clear up on its own with age, and is generally worse during puberty. It is more uncommon in those in their 30s and 40s. Cold, dry conditions such as those found during Winter can also make the condition worse.

Keratosis pilaris can lead to hyperpigmentation on the skin, and in serious cases permanent scarring and discoloration of the skin. In this article I will be dealing with the more common form of keratosis pilaris – of bumpy skin most commonly on the back of the arms and other parts of the body. More serious conditions of keratosis pilaris, such as keratosis pilaris atrophicans are best treated by a dermatologist.

Exfoliating and Moisturizing

Treatment of keratosis pilaris involves exfoliation of the skin and then moisturization of the skin. Unfortunately no standard treatment is effective for all cases, though consistent treatment should reduce the amount of skin affected.

Methods of exfoliation usually involve salicylic acid, as it can dissolve in to sebum allowing it to enter pores and begin to remove the keratin plugs. Salicylic acid has also been combined with topical Vitamin A acid derivatives, such as retinoic acid. Retinoic acid helps the skin shed more evenly, and also thins the skin (due to increased cell turn-over). Success has varied, some people respond very well to the treatment, whereas others have no results at all.

It’s possible to use a higher percentage of salicylic acid on the body, around 5%. Unfortunately leave-on products are limited to 2% salicylic acid, but there are higher percentage salicylic acid products available online. There are also shampoos that contain 3% salicylic acid, such as Selsun Blue Naturals ($7.54 for for 11 oz on Amazon). If you do choose the Selsun Blue product, I would recommend letting it sit on the skin for 5 minutes before washing off, (It’s great for blackheads on the nose as well.)

Physically exfoliating the skin may benefit those suffering from mild keratosis pilaris, but it can also cause damage to the skin causing hyperpigmentation (brown and red marks) on the skin. If you do choose to physically exfoliate the skin, try to be gentle and take your time. Irritation to the skin will be reduced if you exfoliate lightly and for a longer time, than exfoliating with force for a shorter period. I would recommend using an exfoliating glove.

Keeping the skin moist and supple is also important, especially since the condition has been shown to worsen in the Winter. A popular product, that is commonly recommended for keratosis pilaris treatment, is AmLactin ($22.74 for 17.6 oz on Amazon), which has lactic acid. Since the lactic acid is neutralized, it won’t exfoliate the skin, but can help bind moisture.

One small study found good results after 4 weeks with the use of Aquaphor ($28 for 28 oz on Amazon). There’s nothing really special about Aquaphor, it’s a combination of mainly petrolatum (Vaseline), lanolin and mineral waxes – so one should see similar results with an effective moisturizer.

Anecdotally, people have also had good results with using coconut oil. Grape seed oil may work better though, as it is high in linoleic acid which is anti-inflammatory, and has been shown to lighten hyperpigmentation as well.

Apply the moisturizer of your choosing after a shower, when your skin is saturated with water, a study has shown that keratin is able to absorb more fatty acids (like linoleic acid) when it is wet.

There are also products that combine moisturizers with exfoliants, KP Duty by Dermadoctor ($36 for 4 oz on Amazon) is specifically designed for keratosis pilaris. It’s very expensive though for moisturizer with glycolic acid. There are much cheaper alternatives such as Alpha Hydrox AHA Enhanced Lotion ($8.49 for 6 oz on Amazon), just make sure the pH of the exfoliating lotion is below 5.5.

Corticosteroid creams have also been prescribed for the treatment of keratosis pilaris, though I personally believe this should be reserved for serious cases. Strong corticosteroids work by thinning the skin, but there are associated side effects and should be done under the supervision of a dermatologist.

Tanning and Covering It Up

There is anecdotal evidence that sun exposure helps keratosis pilaris. One person reported that a deep sunburn removed the keratosis pilaris completely, unfortunately it did eventually return.

I am absolutely not recommending tanning as a treatment for keratosis pilaris, but a darker skin tone will help to hide the keratosis pilaris.

A self-tanner can effectively conceal the keratosis pilaris for up to a week, depending on how often you exfoliate your skin. I personally like St. Moriz Tanning Mousse ($6.51 for 6.7 oz on Amazon). It’s also available in the UK and on eBay for around 3-5 dollars.

Be aware that treatments like salicylic acid will cause the self-tanner to come off quickly, and possibly in patches, so I would suggest saving the self-tanner for special occasions or situations where you may be self conscious of your keratosis pilaris.

There are also other products which provide color to the skin temporarily, such as L’Oreal Paris Sublime Bronze One-Day Tint ($1.95 for 6.7 oz on Amazon) and MAC Face and Body foundation. This can come off on clothes though, especially if you sweat – so do keep that in mind.

Vitamin Deficiencies

There have been a few studies examining the role of Vitamin A and D in causing keratosis pilaris. The studies focus on more aggressive and scarring forms of keratosis pilaris, though – and the results weren’t strong.

One study using topical Vitamin D showed no results for keratosis pilaris, unfortunately.

There is anecdotal evidence that Omega-3 supplementation can help with keratosis pilaris, but I was unable to find any scientific studies that had examined this.

Laser and Experimental Treatments

A novel combination of ingredients known as “Fractional Prickle Coral Calcium” has been used successfully in Korean patients. Most patients saw about a 50% improvement in their skin after 5 treatments, two weeks apart. The ingredients were described as such “Niaciamide, arbutin, Rosmarinus officinalis, Chamomilla Recutita, Centella asiatica, kaolin, Lavandula Angustifolia, aloe vera, anti-bacterials, spirulina, allantoin, papain, mandelic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, salicylic acid.”

My assumption is that the niacinamide combined with the acids, particularly the salicylic acid are the components that are doing the brunt of the work. Luckily these two ingredients are cheaply and widely available.

Keratosis pilaris treatment has also been shown to respond well to laser treatment. Satisfactory results were achieved after 3 treatments. Keep in mind that laser treatment is very expensive, but I will link the studies: 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser, 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser, 1064-nm Nd:YAG laser, Combination laser with microdermabrasion.

The same study that looked at the effectiveness of Aquaphor also found 0.1% Tacrolimus ointment as effective. It’s possible that the Tacolimus ointment is more effective, but the study size was too small to be sure. Tacrolimus is an immuno-suppresant that is used in treating vitiligo and eczema.

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11 thoughts on “What is Keratosis Pilaris?

  1. Shukohri says:

    Thanks for another great article! Do you happen to have thoughts on Kiehl’s Blue Herbal Moisturizer? I’m considering to give it a try.

    And what about the more specialized Kiehl’s Ultimate Man Razor Bump Relief? I’ve tried that and was surprised that it actually seems to make a difference. I assume this is due to the salicylic acid, which is why I’m interested to try more products of that kind.

    Again, thanks for posting this.

    • Stephen says:

      I’ll take a look! So far, I haven’t been too impressed with Kiehl’s products…they do have a great brand image and marketing though!

  2. klhjhkjlh says:

    I hear that trying different laundry stuffs can also help.

  3. Vanessa says:

    I have been dealing with this for a long time and found that exfoliating and moisturizing did not help. I did a little research and came across a method called “Oil Pulling”. People use this method for all different skin aliment. Oil Pulling is just swishing a tablespoon of oil (usually sunflower, safflower or avocado) in your mouth for 15-20 min every morning on an empty stomach, spit, rinse . I’ve been doing this for months now and it really works.

    • Stephen says:

      Glad you found something that worked for you! I’d be interested in finding out why oil pulling has had an effect

  4. Anne says:

    Thanks for the guide! I’ve had KP for years now and visited numerous skin specialists about it until I came to the conclusion that it just couldn’t be cured. Most of them gave me balms / creams that would get rid of it completely after about 2-3 weeks of daily use, but it would return within days of stopping. Are there any permanent treatments to the problem, besides laser or hoping that it goes away with age?

    • Stephen says:

      Unfortunately there aren’t. Consistent treatment can improve the condition greatly, or in some cases completely…but you do have to be diligent. Most people do grow out of it though, so there is hope!

  5. Ana Ibrahim says:

    Thank you very much, this helped me a lot, last summer I tried an ”oil pulling” treatment but the following month I got blisters on the hands. I do not know if that was related to treatment, what do you think?
    I tried with coconut oil and had to stop but I think it was working

  6. Zech says:

    Ey guys. Im also suffering from KP. My Dr. Prescribed me to use 5% retenoic lotion, fragrance free body wash like cetaphil or baby baths, plus avoid using too much perfume and super scented laundry detergents, she also adviced me not to eat too much tomatoes, citrus , oily foods etc….Now! i noticed my back is reducing its redness and bumpness….plus. Body scrubbing will help too….

  7. Kiara Nushrina says:

    hi,i am 16 years old and i have KP on my arms,and i am really worried about it.i have been doing research on it,and found that applying Vaseline,Am lactin,and Dove pro age would really help in making a difference.These moisturizing creams that i have listed above are quite expensive,but i haven’t tried now,i am thinking to give it a try,but if it didn’t work,then it would be a waste of money.i also know that KP cannot be cured permanently but still i have a hope to see my skin healthy and without KP,sometimes it is really embarrassing but i will always try to make effort and i really believe that one day it would disappear.

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