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How to Tell If You Have Keratosis Pilaris

Usually when we talk about skin bumps, the topic centers around breakouts or milia, however those aren’t the only type of texture issues there are. There’s one all too common skin bump that many people have but might not even know it. Called keratosis pilaris (or chicken skin, if you’re being rude about it), it’s a type of chronic skin issue that’s perfectly normal, yet still baffling to treat.

Keep reading to learn more about this skin condition, including how to tell if you have it and what you can do about it if you do. 

What is keratosis pilaris? 

“Keratosis pilaris is a common skin disorder that consists of dry, little rough bumps in characteristic areas such as the backs of the upper arms or the anterior thighs,” says New York City board-certified dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology, Kenneth Howe, MD. 

Keratosis pilaris, or KP for short, is a common skin condition that actually cannot be cured or prevented. That said, you can treat and minimize it with moisturizers and prescription creams to help improve the appearance of the skin (more on that later). That said, there is light at the end of this KP tunnel — the condition usually disappears by the age of 30. 

What causes keratosis pilaris? 

As much as we know about KP, scientists and doctors have not come to a consensus about what causes it. It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation, pardon the pun. “Some researchers feel the primary problem is abnormal keratinization of the follicle — i.e., the plug forms first,” says Howe. “Others feel that the primary problem arises when coiled hairs pierce and rupture the follicular lining — i.e., the coiled hair starts the process off.” 

In general though, KP is caused by a keratin (the hard protein that protects skin from harmful substances and infection) plug developing in the hair follicles of the affected areas. Often, there’s also a coiled-up hair trapped behind the keratin plug. 

KP is caused by a keratin (the hard protein that protects skin from harmful substances and infection) plug developing in the hair follicles of the affected areas.

Kenneth Howe, MD.

How can you tell if you have keratosis pilaris?

Run your hands over the backs of your upper arms. If you feel rough little bumps in a regular pattern over much of the surface, then you might have KP. Thankfully the bumps usually don’t hurt or itch, but they might have redness or dark pigmentation. 

You’re also more likely to have KP if you also have dry skin or allergic conditions like eczema, hay fever, or asthma.

What can you do to ease the symptoms of keratosis pilaris? 

The bad news? There’s not a thing you can do to prevent or stop KP. But likely the condition will ease or entirely disappear with time. As mentioned above, most cases cease by the age of 30, and even before that, 35 percent of children with the condition will see improvements by their teens. 

That doesn’t mean there’s absolutely nothing you can do for KP though. There are a handful of creams and lotions at your drugstore that will help ease the appearance and roughness of KP bumps. Look for a lactic acid-based moisturizer  — Howe recommends this over the commonly recommended salicylic acid lotions, noting that recent studies have shown lactic to be more effective in treating KP. Apply the creams on the targeted area once or twice a day. “The lactic acid will help loosen the plugs, which are then more easily removed with gentle (and not obsessive!) exfoliation with a loofah,” says Howe.

TL;DR? Although there’s no cure or preventing keratosis pilaris, know that it’s perfectly common, and with time it will likely disappear entirely. Until then, lactic acid-based creams will help alleviate symptoms. But no need to hide your bumps —  we say wear ‘em with pride, you’ve got places to go and people to see, KP or not. 

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