What is keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris is a benign (not harmful) skin condition that looks like small bumps. If you have this condition, you may notice small, painless bumps on your skin around the hair follicles. These bumps may have a red, brown or white color — they can also be skin-colored. You may hear keratosis pilaris called KP or even “chicken skin” because of its goose bump-like appearance.

It’s so common that it’s considered by many dermatologists to be a skin type instead of a medical condition. Keratosis pilaris is most commonly seen in families with a history of eczema, allergies and asthma. About 50 to 80% of teenagers and 40% of adults will develop these bumps at some point during their life. You’ll typically find these bumps on your upper arms, but they can also appear on your cheeks, legs or buttocks.

Who is most likely to develop keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris is typically more common in younger people and it often gets worse around puberty. Babies and teenagers are especially likely to develop this condition. Keratosis pilaris is linked to certain genetic traits, which could make you more likely to develop it during your life.

You may be more likely to experience keratosis pilaris if you have:

  • Fair or light skin.
  • Certain skin conditions like, eczema or ichthyosis vulgaris (a genetic condition where your dead skin cells look like fish scales).
  • Asthma (a chronic disease that causes breathing problems from inflamed airways).
  • A higher body weight (obese or overweight).

What causes keratosis pilaris?

The bumps you see when you have keratosis pilaris are actually collections of dead skin cells. These bumps are sometimes mistaken for clusters of small pimples. Keratosis pilaris bumps happen when dead skin cells clog (block) your pores instead of flaking off. Your pores are openings in your skin where hairs come through the skin (hair follicles).

Healthcare providers don’t know why some people are affected by keratosis pilaris, while others aren’t. There could be a genetic factor — meaning your genes could impact your chances of developing this condition.

If you have a skin condition like eczema, you’re more likely to get keratosis pilaris. Eczema is a common chronic skin condition that causes your skin to have red, itchy patches that come and go over time.

Is keratosis pilaris contagious?

Keratosis pilaris isn’t contagious. Out of the many different types of skin bumps and growths that are possible, keratosis pilaris is a harmless one.

What are the most common symptoms of keratosis pilaris?

The main feature of keratosis pilaris that you’ll notice will be groupings of tiny, rough, sometimes discolored bumps on your skin. Most people will notice the appearance of the bumps, but won’t have any symptoms related to them. If you do experience symptoms of keratosis pilaris, they can include:

  • Itchy or dry skin, especially on the backs of your upper arms, legs or buttocks.
  • Irritation of the bumps that causes them to become more red and noticeable. This is known as frictional lichenoid dermatitis.
  • Rough, sandpaper-like skin where the bumps appear.
  • Worsening of the bumps when the air is drier (such as in winter months).

Some of these symptoms — like itchy, dry skin — can be caused by other conditions. You can have similar symptoms related to eczema, psoriasis, allergies or fungal infections. If you are concerned about your symptoms, or if they linger, it’s a good idea to check with you healthcare provider.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/29/2018.

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