Keratin Plugs

Keratin plugs are white or skin-colored bumps that develop on the skin. These clogged pores are more common in children and teenagers. They feel rough and often appear in groups on the upper arms and bottom. These bumps are harmless, don’t require treatment and usually go away on their own. Never pick at or try to remove a keratin plug.


What are keratin plugs?

Keratin plugs are bumps on your skin. They are usually white, pink or the same color as your skin. They develop when hair follicles (tiny holes in your skin) get clogged with dead skin cells and a protein called keratin. Your body makes this protein naturally. You have keratin in your skin, hair and nails.

Keratin plugs can develop anywhere on your body, but they usually appear on your upper arms, thighs and buttocks (bottom). They’re more common in children and teenagers. They often get worse around puberty.

Keratin plugs are not pimples. They don’t require treatment. But if you don’t like how they look, they won’t go away or you have a lot of them, talk to your provider. Never try to remove a keratin plug on your own.


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Who might get keratin plugs?

Anyone can get keratin plugs. They’re more common in children and teenagers. People who get a lot of keratin plugs may have a condition called keratosis pilaris. This condition causes clusters of keratin plugs to develop.

You have a higher chance of keratosis pilaris and keratin plugs if you have:

How common are keratin plugs?

Keratin plugs are very common, especially among tweens and teenagers. Providers believe that up to 80% of teenagers get keratin plugs somewhere on their bodies. They worsen during adolescent development (puberty) and usually clear up by age 30.

They’re more common in the winter when the weather is dry and cold. They may clear up during warmer months and reappear in the winter.


Symptoms and Causes

What causes keratin plugs?

Healthcare providers aren’t sure exactly what causes keratin plugs. They form when keratin clumps together in the hair follicles, forming a plug. Providers believe the bumps form when the skin gets irritated. This usually comes from friction or if your skin is too dry.

Keratin plugs may be inherited (passed down through families). People with other skin conditions are more likely to get them.

What are the symptoms of keratin plugs?

Symptoms of keratin plugs include small bumps, usually on the upper arms, butt, thighs or cheeks. You might mistake a keratin plug for acne. But they aren’t the same as pimples.

They often develop in clusters or groups and feel rough (like sandpaper) when you touch them. Some people call the clusters of bumps “chicken skin” due to their raised appearance. The skin around them can be red or pink.


Are keratin plugs painful?

Keratin plugs aren’t painful. But sometimes the bumps can itch, especially if your skin is dry. They can also get irritated and turn red, a condition called frictional lichenoid dermatitis.

What’s the difference between sebum plugs and keratin plugs?

Although both types of clogged pores can look similar, keratin plugs are different from sebum plugs. A type of acne, sebum plugs happen when pores get clogged with sebum and dead skin cells. Sebum is oil your body produces to keep skin moist. Sebum plugs result from hormones and increased stress levels.

Sebum plugs usually develop on the face, including the forehead, chin and nose. They look more like pimples and have a “head.” In fact, sebum plugs appear before zits and can turn into pimples.

Diagnosis and Tests

How are keratin plugs diagnosed?

Your provider diagnoses keratin plugs by looking at your skin. They’ll ask about your symptoms and examine the bumps. Other tests usually aren’t necessary to diagnose this condition. You may want to see a dermatologist (a provider who specializes in caring for skin).

Management and Treatment

How can I treat keratin plugs?

Keratin plugs usually clear up on their own. They don’t require treatment. Never pick at, squeeze or try to “pop” a keratin plug. Doing so can cause irritation and scarring.

If you don’t like the way they look, you can:

  • Gently exfoliate your skin. Scrub your skin gently using a washcloth, sponge or soft facial brush. You may also use products (such as chemical exfoliators or peels) but talk to your provider before you do.
  • Keep your skin hydrated. Moisturize regularly with a lotion or cream that’s noncomedogenic, which means it won’t clog your pores. Use a humidifier when the air is cold and dry.
  • Take care of your skin. Don’t wear clothes that are too tight or restrictive. Clothing can rub against your skin and cause or irritate keratin plugs. Only shower in water that’s lukewarm — not too hot — to avoid irritation.

If you have a lot of these bumps, they keep coming back or they’re on your face, your dermatologist can help. They may recommend another type of exfoliation, such as dermabrasion. Or they may recommend laser skin resurfacing to remove the bumps.


How can I prevent keratin plugs?

You may not be able to prevent keratin plugs. To reduce your risk, keep your skin from getting too dry. This is especially important when the air is cold, like during the winter or in air conditioning.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have keratin plugs?

Keratin plugs are harmless. They don’t require treatment and usually clear up on their own by age 30.

Some people get a lot of these annoying bumps. But they don’t cause problems for most people. To avoid irritation, infection and scarring, never pick at or try to pop a keratin plug.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider about keratin plugs?

See your provider if bumps on your skin are painful, bleeding or very itchy. These could be signs of infection or another skin condition like skin cancer.

If you have a condition (such as eczema) that puts you at a higher risk of keratin plugs or keratosis pilaris, talk to your provider. They can monitor your skin and treat problems if they arise.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Keratin plugs are annoying and you might think they’re unsightly. They can make you feel self-conscious, especially if they’re on a part of your body that clothing doesn’t cover. But these bumps are harmless. They usually go away without treatment. To get rid of them more quickly, make sure your skin doesn’t get too dry. Never scratch or pick at a keratin plug. Trying to remove it or pop it can irritate your skin and lead to infection.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 04/15/2022.

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