If, as a child, your upper arms were constantly marked by tiny, pimple-like white or red bumps that resembled goosebumps, you weren't alone. Called keratosis pilaris, this inherited but harmless skin disorder is estimated to affect 50% of adolescents overall and 80% of girls. While some kids outgrow keratosis pilaris, it is a lifelong condition for many people. In fact, 40% of adults today are estimated to have it.
Keratosis pilaris isn't isolated to the upper arms, however. It can also be found on the upper thighs, buttocks and even cheeks and be accompanied by red, inflamed areas of skin. And yet, keratosis isn't painful; it's just cosmetic. For that reason, you'll find plenty of content around the topic on fashion and beauty sites.
What Causes Keratosis Pilaris?
While researchers are not entirely sure of the cause of keratosis pilaris, the prevailing theory is that it is a disorder of keratinization - the process whereby skin cells are pushed up through the layers of skin and sloughed off when dead. In the case of those who have the condition, the skin cells don't shed properly and instead build up in the hair follicles, ultimately becoming keratin plugs that block the pores and create bumps.
For many individuals, the severity of keratosis pilaris varies with the seasons. In winter, the condition worsens, while it improves in summer or in humid climates.
Keratosis Pilaris Treatment
There is no "cure" for keratosis pilaris. Rather, the goal of treatment is to manage the condition, thereby reducing the presence of bumps and redness.
Because of its nature as a keratinization disorder, exfoliation is the gold standard for treatment due to its ability to thin the keratin layer of dead skin cells and encourage cellular turnover. Consider regularly applying a chemical exfoliator formulated with alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic acid or lactic acid, or salicylic acid (a beta-hydroxy acid).
Many individuals have seen positive improvement through mechanical exfoliation, as well. However, care is needed to ensure the skin exfoliation isn't too aggressive, as this could result in inflammation and a worsening of the condition. Dry brushing is one gentle method worth considering.
Avoiding dry skin is important to ensuring that keratosis pilaris doesn't worsen. Use a hydrating body lotion daily - one that includes humectants to draw moisture to skin tissue, such as sorbitol, glycerin or urea, and emollients to help smooth skin and improve barrier function, such as lanolin, jojoba oil and petrolatum.
For stubborn cases of keratosis pilaris, professional intervention may be needed. Dermatologists may prescribe retinoids or oral isotretinoin, while estheticians may suggest laser treatments.