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).
Symptoms and Causes
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.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is keratosis pilaris diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will typically diagnose keratosis pilaris with a simple physical examination of the skin where you have bumps. Medical testing is usually not needed to diagnose this condition. If your provider is unsure that it’s keratosis pilaris, additional tests may be done to complete your diagnosis. These other tests could include taking a tiny sample of your skin to rule out other skin conditions.
The location and characteristics of the bumps can help you identify whether you have keratosis pilaris.
Keratosis pilaris bumps most often show up on your arms — especially the upper arms. They can also appear on your cheeks, legs (upper or lower) or buttocks.
How any skin bumps look and feel can tell you a lot about what might be causing them. Keratosis pilaris bumps are:
- Painless: If you feel discomfort or pain when pressing on a skin bump, it’s probably not keratosis pilaris.
- Itchy or dry: These bumps, and the skin around them, may feel itchy or dry.
- Rough: Running your hands over these bumps may feel rough to the touch, like sandpaper.
- Discolored: Bumps may appear skin colored, red, white, brown, or even dark brown or black (depending on the natural color of your skin).
Do I need to see a specialist to diagnose keratosis pilaris?
In most cases, you can see your family doctor for a diagnosis of keratosis pilaris. Some people may go to a skin specialist called a dermatologist for treatment of their keratosis pilaris.
Management and Treatment
What are common keratosis pilaris treatments?
Because keratosis pilaris isn’t harmful, you usually don’t need to treat it. For some people, the bumps go away on their own or become less noticeable by about age 30. You may also notice that the bumps go away in the summer and only become noticeable in the winter.
If the bumps bother you, treatment with moisturizers, creams and gentle skin care may help your symptoms.
Treatments your healthcare provider may recommend can include:
Over-the-counter moisturizing lotions
Dry skin can make keratosis pilaris worse. Applying an over-the-counter moisturizer keeps skin hydrated, minimizing and softening the bumps. Apply several times each day, especially after showering while your skin is still damp. Moisturizers with ammonium lactate and alpha hydroxyl acids, such as Am-Lactin or CeraVe SA cream, are the best choices for rough, bumpy skin and people with keratosis pilaris.
Your healthcare provider can tell you if prescription-strength moisturizers may be right for you. The ingredients urea and alpha-hydroxy acids can sometimes improve the look of keratosis pilaris. Medicated vitamin A creams, such as Retin-A, can help decrease the buildup of dead skin cells that causes keratosis pilais. Be careful not to use too much. Overuse of these medicated creams can irritate your skin.
Use a loofah to gently brush the affected areas of your skin while you shower or bathe. Make sure not to scrub too hard. Scrubbing can irritate your skin and make your symptoms worse.
Laser treatments can be offered by a dermatologist. These treatments can help improve the redness associated with keratosis pilaris.
Gentle skin care
Most people find their keratosis pilaris improves when they change their routine to avoid dry skin. Changes can include:
- Taking shorter showers (15 minutes or less).
- Using lukewarm versus hot water in baths or showers.
- Using a humidifier, which can help hydrate your skin.
- Using moisturizers daily.
Keep in mind that these keratosis pilaris treatments are temporary. You’ll need to continue treatments to see continued improvements. Some people don’t see any benefit from treatment. Fortunately, keratosis pilaris is not harmful, only annoying. It does not lead to long-term damage to the skin.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Keratosis pilaris is often a temporary skin condition that goes away over time. It usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, but if you experience any discomfort like itchy or dry skin, reach out to your healthcare provider. There are ways to treat keratosis pilaris. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best ways to care for your skin.