Whether you’re dealing with rough patches, flaking or more severe conditions like eczema, dry skin can be a really uncomfortable and even painful skin issue to deal with. And with hot summer days in full swing, you may be realizing that your everyday skin care routine just isn’t cutting it anymore.
If you’re noticing any areas of small, rough bumps on your body that definitely aren’t zits, you may be dealing with keratosis pilaris. Ahead, we’ve asked dermatologists to break down exactly what it is, what causes it and what you can do to treat it.
What is keratosis pilaris?
Keratosis pilaris is a common skin condition “characterized by tiny, rough bumps on the surface of the skin,” explains Dr. Anar Mikailov, a Harvard-trained board-certified dermatologist and the founder of KP Away. Often referred to as “chicken skin” or “strawberry skin,” these bumps typically appear on the upper arms, upper thighs, cheeks and buttocks.
Fortunately, keratosis pilaris is typically harmless, explains Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. “The bumps normally don’t itch or cause any pain,” she explains, “the concern is mainly just cosmetic.”
However, there can be more severe cases, explains Mikailov. The area can become “irritating, itchy and persistent” and may start to feel dry or sandpaper-like. Many people will discover the condition when they can’t scrub away the itchy, occasionally painful bumps. In this case, Mikailov recommends seeing a dermatologist for a formal diagnosis and a sustainable management plan.
What causes keratosis pilaris?
Keratosis pilaris occurs when hair follicles are blocked or clogged, which causes bumps on the skin. However, there are varying opinions on what causes the blockage.
Engleman explains that keratosis pilaris is caused by “a buildup of retained keratin, which is a protein found in your skin, nails and hair.” Mikailov, on the other hand, describes our sebaceous glands and their secretion of sebum — our body’s natural oil that ensures healthy skin, hair and nails — as the key factor. “When sebaceous glands are missing or not functional, it leads to a lack of naturally produced oil, fats and acids that normally promote healthy hair follicle growth and skin turnover,” he explains. “Ultimately follicles become ‘plugged’ and the bumps of keratosis pilaris follow.”
No matter how the blockage is caused, it produces “evenly spaced out, pink, firm bumps,” explains Dr. Rachel Maiman, a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical. There’s likely a “heritable component given its propensity to run in families,” she adds. Dr. Ellen Marmur, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of MMSkincare, echoes this idea, emphasizing keratosis pilaris as “a genetic skin problem inherited by one parent and a special form of eczema.”
For many people, keratosis pilaris gets worse during the winter when the weather is drier. It can also come about with different environmental changes, like hard water or products that irritate your skin, particularly those with strong exfoliating acids or fragrances, Mikailov shares.
Another factor to consider is your age and stage of life. “Certain periods of life including puberty, pregnancy and menopause” can contribute to keratosis pilaris, Mikailov explains. It’s also very common to see during teenage years, he says, sharing that it affects at least 50% of all adolescents. “For some people keratosis pilaris improves with age, but for most people it persists and requires a smart, gentle and safe skin care routine.”
How to treat keratosis pilaris
“While there isn’t a single cure for keratosis pilaris,” explains Engelman, “there are products that can help relieve some of the symptoms and prevent it from forming.” She recommends AHA- and BHA-based body products, which, when paired with hydrating and soothing ingredients, “help to remove dead skin cell buildup without compromising the skin barrier.”
Maiman recommends products that include keratolytic agents, which as she explains, “work to break down the clumps of dead skin cells” blocking your hair follicles. Some common keratolytic agents include salicylic acid, urea, ammonium lactate and glycolic acid.
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Recommended by both Maiman and Engelman, this 10% AHA scrub is a gentle physical and chemical exfoliant. Engelman explains that the pumice buffing beads serve as a physical exfoliant that “targets the symptoms of keratosis pilaris by gently scrubbing away dead skin cells and helping to unclog blocked hair follicles.” At the same time, “the mixture of both glycolic and lactic acids chemically exfoliate the skin” while vitamin E conditions and smooths it, explains Maiman,
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Maiman loves this body cream, which “combines a mixture of alpha hydroxy acids with salicylic acid” for a formulation that’s well-suited to targeting keratosis pilaris. It also includes bisabolol, “a soothing agent extracted from chamomile that calms skin,” explains Maiman.
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This daily moisturizer is formulated with plant-derived ingredients, including coconut oil, which “mimic the skin’s natural sebum functions,” shares Mikhailov, who is also the brand founder. It’s purposefully formulated with minimal ingredients as a way to reduce the potential for skin irritants, like fragrance. “This gentle approach is a much more sustainable and long-term treatment plan for keratosis pilaris,” Mikhailov explains.
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When you’re dealing with dry skin conditions like keratosis pilaris, a deeply nourishing moisturizer at the end of a skin care routine is a must, explains Engelman. This body cream contains fruit alpha hydroxy acids and vitamin C, making it “great for both nourishing the skin and gently removing any dead skin buildup,” she shares.
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“This cream is formulated with ceramides to strengthen skin barrier functions,” explains Mikhailov, who recommends this moisturizer as a great drugstore option. Ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid are humectants, which will help your skin retain moisture. Plus, it’s fragrance-free.
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If you’re experiencing keratosis pilaris on your face, Engelman recommends exfoliating with this liquid exfoliant. It contains a five-acid blend that’s “clinically proven to smooth, soften and improve skin’s texture,” she explains.
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“Isdin body lotion is genius,” shares Marmur. The formulation combines urea and other moisturizing ingredients to gently dissolve the bumps and moisturize the skin or eczema beneath, she explains.
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Another helpful facial product for battling keratosis pilaris, this gel moisturizer works to “deeply hydrate dry, irritated skin with hyaluronic acid,” explains Engelman. Be sure to apply after exfoliating, she notes.
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For a salicylic acid product, Maiman recommends this body wash. She suggests using it on affected areas in the shower, as it’ll work to exfoliate and soften your skin. Reviewers rave about this product, with some sharing that they saw differences in their skin after just one use.
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Engelman recommends this body serum, which contains a four-acid blend that helps remove dead skin cells. Ingredients like bisabolol, squalane and ceramides work to soothe and moisturize the skin. If you’ve never used a body serum before, the brand recommends cleansing and drying your skin, then rubbing the serum over areas of concern. Afterwards, you can follow it up with a body lotion.
$36 at MMSkincare
This cream contains urea and glycolic acid, two ingredients that work to soften the dead skin that causes blockage of hair follicles, brand founder Marmur explains. It’s buttery, balmy and formulated to fight all dryness, whether it’s eczema and keratosis pilaris or extremely dry hands from washing your hands. She suggests following it immediately with the MMSkincare Rescue Cream.
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This rich, thick cream can be used multiple times a day for whenever you need relief from dryness, explains Marmur. It’s made with a ton of super hydrating ingredients including hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, ceramides and squalene.
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This body butter is “packed with shea butter, nourishing plant oils, antioxidants and 1,000 mg of broad-spectrum CBD,” explains Engelman, all of which work to “thoroughly soothe and hydrate skin.”
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“AmLactin lotion is a staple in the management of keratosis pilaris for many dermatologists,” explains Maiman. Its main ingredient is ammonium lactate — a form of lactic acid that’s an alpha hydroxy acid with keratolytic properties. In other words? It has all the ingredients that’ll target those blocked hair follicles.
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While many people may see improvements in their bumps by moisturizing and hydrating their skin, some may require some gentle exfoliation, explains Mikhailov. This body wash is “formulated with jojoba wax beads that melt into your skin and feature a mix of nourishing plant-based oils including jojoba oil, squalane and coconut oil,” he shares.
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“For those with really stubborn cases, using a keratolytic agent such as urea can help,” shares Mikhailov. However, he urges caution. “These high-strength exfoliating creams can sting, and should generally not be used on the face.”