Keratosis Pilaris

Chicken skin on the back of your arms? Sometimes confused with mild acne, these rough and sometimes red bumps often become more noticeable during autumn or winter months. While medically harmless, they can be an annoyance.

What is it?

What you thought was acne may actually be keratosis pilaris (KP). Often nicknamed “chicken skin,” they are small bumps that can be felt often on the arms and seem to be more common in teenagers and young adults. It can also affect the back, face, or thighs. In lighter skin tones the bumps are often red and more noticeable. In people with darker skin tones, the bumps often match the skin tone, making it less visible. Keratosis pilaris is not a medially dangerous condition. Although it can cause mild itching in some people, there are few other symptoms that affect quality of life.

How common is it?

Odds are about even money that you have it. In teenagers the number may be as high as 80%1. Keratosis pilaris is not a serious medical condition, and in most cases the symptoms are mild. Compared to other common skin conditions like acne, which can cause scarring, and can significantly affect quality of life, there are less studies for keratosis pilaris. For this reason, the statistics on keratosis pilaris may not be as well documented and reliable as some other well known conditions.

What causes keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris is a genetic variation that affects the skin, albeit one that is extremely common and well represented in all ethnicities. In individuals with KP, the skin has too much keratin, which are the protein building blocks that give skin toughness. Keratin is also found in hair, and is also the building blocks of tougher structures like the nails, or hooves, horns, and shells in other animals. In KP, the excess keratin entraps the hair follicles in the pores, creating a kind of plug which presents as the familiar chicken skin bumps.

How do you treat keratosis pilaris?

The bad news is that there is no “cure” to keratosis pilaris. It may be best to think of it like a skin type, rather than a skin condition--its basis is genetic. KP often subsides on its own by a person’s thirties, but this is not always the case. There is very little in the way of active treatments, but it can be managed.

- Manage KP by managing dry skin -

The symptoms of KP are often most severe during the winter when there is less humidity and the skin is dry. For some people, KP is only present in the winter months. The key to controlling KP symptoms is to control dry skin. All the advice for managing dry skin applies to people who have KP. Moisturizing regularly, avoiding hot baths and showers (use tepid water and shorten the duration), using liquid soaps instead of bar soaps can all help. Having a humidifier in the office or in your bedroom, where many hours are spent during the colder winter months can help to retain and maintain moisture in the skin.

- Use medicated creams -

If moisturizers aren’t sufficient to control KP, sometimes creams that contain salicylic acid or alpha-hydroxy acids can help loosen up the keratin. Many of these can be found over-the-counter. Another option is to see a dermatologist, who may prescribe a stronger medicated cream with retinol or vitamin A, which can help to break down the excess keratin which is the cause of KP symptoms.

At the end of the day, keratosis pilaris is more of a mild annoyance, and not a serious medical problem. Managing dry skin is often the best way to control the symptoms of keratosis pilaris. For people with red bumps that are visible, there are some makeup options that can hide the colors well. If keratosis pilaris is significantly affecting your quality of life, however, visit a dermatologist to make sure that it isn’t a different condition altogether.


1Statistics on relatively harmless, and low impact conditions are often lacking, as there are few researchers interested in them and less incentives to fund research.