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Got bumps? Here’s how to treat keratosis pilaris

Small red, white or flesh colored bumps on your skin? No need to panic. It could be a harmless skin condition known as keratosis pilaris.

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Curology Team
Mar 12, 2020 · 5 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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  3. > Got bumps? Here’s how to treat keratosis pilaris

If you’ve noticed tiny rough bumps on your arms that look like pimples, it may not be regular old acne. They could be the result of keratosis pilaris—sometimes called “chicken skin.” While these small, harmless bumps can appear in many different areas on the body, most people notice them on the back of their upper arms.¹ 

But what exactly is keratosis pilaris, does it need to be treated, and if so, what treatment options exist?

What is keratosis pilaris and what are its symptoms?

Keratosis pilaris happens when keratin, a protein in hair, skin, and fingernails, builds up in your hair follicles, causing tiny bumps, often on the arms, cheeks, thighs, or buttocks.² They usually resemble the goosebumps you experience when you get the chills. Keratosis pilaris is a common, harmless condition, and it shouldn’t cause pain when you touch the affected areas.³ If you’re wondering whether you have keratosis pilaris, here are a few common symptoms:¹

  1. Small, painless red, white, or flesh-colored bumps on the upper arms, cheeks, thighs, or buttocks

  2. Excessively dry skin

  3. Skin that feels rough

  4. Bumps and dryness that worsen with colder weather

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What causes keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris is acne-like, but it’s not acne. Sometimes, during keratin’s growth process (keratinization), a buildup of keratin occurs, which can lead to the formation of blocked hair follicles.² Dead skin cells clog pores and this (along with the buildup of keratin) cause the small raised bumps that we know as keratosis pilaris. 

Although keratosis pilaris may be common, researchers are still unclear about what the exact cause is. Genetics play a role as it has been shown to be inherited.⁴ The severity of keratosis pilaris may also change based on various factors; it may emerge or worsen during pregnancy⁵ and can become more noticeable in winter or in dry climates.⁶ 

Who gets keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris can happen to anyone—in fact, it’s very likely you or someone you know has experienced it at some point. It’s especially common among teens and children3 and has even been linked to pregnant women too.⁵

Race or gender don’t appear to be factors that predispose someone to this condition, but if you’re prone to dry skin or have eczema, you may be more likely to see these small bumps.⁷ All that said, keratosis pilaris is nothing to be self-conscious or ashamed of! It's completely normal for anyone to experience keratosis pilaris. Remember, it’s a harmless condition that’s more common than you may think.

How can I treat keratosis pilaris?

An absolute cure doesn’t exist (yet), but there are a few promising treatments for keratosis pilaris out there. Rather than thinking of it as “treating keratosis pilaris,” we prefer to focus on pampering and caring for your skin in general. Creating a great self-care routine that feels good for you is important, no matter what. That means taking time to relax and treat yourself, which is always a good idea.

After all, both you and your body deserve it! As far as keratosis pilaris goes, these topical ingredients promote cell turnover or remove dead skin cells, which can help unclog hair follicles.⁸

  • Retinoids. An over-the-counter retinoid like adapalene or a prescription retinoid like tretinoin or tazarotene may be used to treat keratosis pilaris.⁹

  • Lactic acid.⁹ Over-the-counter lactic acid topicals may be helpful. It’s generally ok to apply a lactic acid product daily after showering (but decrease frequency if you’re irritated!).

  • Salicylic acid. Body products with salicylic acid¹⁰ are often recommended to treat keratosis pilaris. Some body lotions contain salicylic acid, too.

  • Urea. Lotions and creams with urea (a naturally occurring molecule that is also called carbamide¹¹) may help the rough, bumpy skin associated with keratosis pilaris.⁹ 

Caring for keratosis pilaris at home 

Now that you know what product ingredients can help treat keratosis pilaris, here are a few ways you can take care of your skin at home:

Moisturize. Moisturizing regularly can help soften and soothe your skin, and if you use a moisturizer with alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), it can help remove dead skin cells to accelerate your skin's recovery.¹² Dry skin is one of the most common symptoms and potential triggers of keratosis pilaris,² so moisturize as much as possible.

Wear soft, loose clothes. Friction from tight and scratchy fabrics may irritate your skin more.⁹ Wearing your favorite soft clothes and giving your skin some room to breathe will help you feel great.

Use a humidifier. Dry skin is a potential symptom of keratosis pilaris. Whether your skin dries out during winter months or you live somewhere with little to no humidity, using a humidifier may help your skin feel hydrated no matter the season.⁹

When should I see a doctor?

Remember, keratosis pilaris is a harmless skin condition. However, if these home remedies aren't working or you’re experiencing severe discomfort or insecurity, a doctor may prescribe treatments that are specifically tailored to you and your skin. While more research is needed, evidence suggests in-office procedures like laser and light treatments¹³ might help.

Keratosis pilaris may also occur with other skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis (aka eczema).² Symptoms including excessively dry skin with painful and itchy rashes can cause discomfort throughout your daily life.¹⁴ If you’re experiencing discomfort, you may want to see a dermatologist for a diagnosis and proper treatment. 

Ichthyosis vulgaris¹⁵ is another skin condition commonly seen with keratosis pilaris, with symptoms that can make your skin look dry and rough. 

If you’re unsure of your skin condition, you’re experiencing pain or discomfort, or home remedies aren’t helping, going to see your medical provider is your best (and safest) bet.

Caring for keratosis pilaris

From home remedies to prescription treatments, there are an abundance of options that can soothe symptoms of keratosis pilaris. And remember, you’re not alone! Keratosis pilaris is a common (and harmless) skin condition. There's nothing wrong if you have it, but you can choose to do what makes you feel good and treat it if you'd like. If so, we’re here to help you find the best treatment for your unique skin. 

While your Curology Custom Formula is just for your face and neck, as a Curology member, you can talk to your dermatology provider for help with other skin issues, like keratosis pilaris. 

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FAQs

What is keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris happens when keratin, a protein in hair, skin, and fingernails, builds up in your hair follicles, causing tiny bumps, often on the arms, cheeks, thighs, or buttocks. They usually resemble the goosebumps you experience when you get the chills.

What are its symptoms?

Here are a few common symptoms:

  1. Small, painless red, white, or flesh-colored bumps on the upper arms, cheeks, thighs, or buttocks

  2. Excessively dry skin

  3. Skin that feels rough

  4. Bumps and dryness that worsen with colder weather

What causes keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris is acne-like, but it’s not acne. Sometimes, during keratin’s growth process (keratinization), a buildup of keratin occurs, which can lead to the formation of blocked hair follicles. Dead skin cells clog pores and this (along with the buildup of keratin) cause the small raised bumps.

Who gets keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris can happen to anyone—in fact, it’s very likely you or someone you know has experienced it at some point. It’s especially common among teens and children3 and has even been linked to pregnant women too.

What is the difference between rosacea and keratosis pilaris?

Rosacea and keratosis pilaris are both chronic skin conditions that can cause facial redness. They are commonly mistaken, but there are some key differences that can help differentiate between the two. One difference is skin texture. In keratosis pilaris, redness and rough sandpapery bumps are often seen on the cheeks and/or upper arms. Rosacea, on the other hand, does not always give the skin a specific texture.

• • •

P.S. We did the research so you don’t have to:

  1. American Academy of Dermatology. Keratosis Pilaris: Who Gets and Causes, (n.d.). 

  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Keratosis Pilaris. Mayo Clinic. (2021, January 30).

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Keratosis Pilaris, (2018, March 29).

  4. Hwang, S., & Schwartz, R. A. Keratosis pilaris: a common follicular hyperkeratosis. (September 2008).

  5. Jackson, J. B., et al. Keratosis pilaris in pregnancy: an unrecognized dermatosis of pregnancy? (January- February 2004).

  6. American Academy of Dermatology. Keratosis Pilaris: Overview. (n.d.).

  7. American Academy of Dermatology. Keratosis Pilaris: Causes. (n.d.)

  8. American Academy of Dermatology. Keratosis Pilaris: Treatment, (n.d.)

  9. Mayo Clinic Staff. Keratosis Pilaris: Diagnosis and Treatment. Mayo Clinic. (2021, January 30).

  10. National Library of Medicine. PubChem. Salicylic Acid, (n.d.).

  11. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britanicca. Urea, Encyclopedia Britannica.(n.d.).

  12. ‘Reddy, S., & Brahmbhatt, H., A Narrative Review on the Role of Acids, Steroids, and Kinase Inhibitors in the Treatment of Keratosis Pilaris. Cureus, (2021, October 13).

  13. Kechichian, Elio. Light and Laser Treatments for Keratosis Pilaris: A Systematic Review. Dermatologic Surgery. (November 2020).

  14. American Academy of Dermatology, Eczema Types: Atopic Dermatitis Overview. (n.d.).

  15. American Academy of Dermatology. Ichthyosis Vulgaris: An Overview.(n.d.).

This article was originally published on March 12, 2020, and updated on March 8, 2022.

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
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Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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