Everything You Need To Know About Naturally Treating Keratosis Pilaris (The Fancy Name For Bumpy Skin)

Photo: Tatjana Ristanic

Why do doctors (yes, I know I’m one of them) love to use such long words to describe simple things? The best example I can think of is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, which means—wait for it—ice cream headache or brain freeze. But a close second is keratosis pilaris, which is the medical term for…bumpy skin. You know the little rough, red patches you sometimes get on the backs of your arms or fronts of your thighs? Those are probably the symptoms of keratosis pilaris (also called KP), a very common, harmless skin condition—harmless, that is, except for the frustration of feeling like a recently plucked chicken. Who wants to feel that way? Below, you’ll find a little more info about KP, and what you can do to get your skin back to a smooth, happy, healthy state.

What is keratosis pilaris?

It's a fancy name for bumpy skin. But let’s examine the medical description. Keratosis just means an excess of growth of keratin, one of the proteins that make up our skin and hair. And any medical word with "pilo" in it is related to hair. (Piloerection is the medical word for goose bumps. I’m not making this up.) So, keratosis pilaris is a buildup of keratin and dead skin cells within the hair follicles, causing them to bulge, giving them the bumpy texture, and often causing them to get irritated and inflamed. KP usually occurs on the backs of the arms, the fronts of the thighs, and sometimes on the buttocks. My theory is that these areas are the places where your clothing tends to rub back and forth on your skin the most, and it stimulates dysfunctional keratin production in the hair follicles. But my theory on why it occurs in these areas is as unproven as the few others out there—we don’t have any actual data to explain why it occurs in some areas and not others.

What causes KP?

There’s no single cause of KP; it can be different in every case. For some patients, it may be a curly hair shaft that causes a keratin buildup. In some people, it’s hereditary. There’s a growing suspicion that certain chemicals, such as sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate or synthetic fragrance, are causing a low-level skin irritation. Subsequent abnormal keratin production and inflammation can lead to symptoms of KP. Lastly, some medications used to treat melanoma can cause KP.

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Who gets KP?

Anyone can get it, but children and adolescents have a higher incidence of KP than adults: It’s extremely common in people under 50, and less common in the elderly. KP is more common in women than men and often occurs in people with a history of asthma or eczema. There is definitely a genetic factor, as well—if your family members have KP, you’re more likely to have it, too. People with very dry skin are more prone to KP, and shaving or waxing can precipitate KP symptoms in some cases. So, there’s a reasonable chance that you might have KP sometime in your life. But here’s the great news: KP is not contagious! So don’t be afraid of your slightly bumpy friends.

Keratosis pilaris treatment: How can I make it go away?

Many physicians will prescribe chemical exfoliants like lactic acid, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and retinoic acid to treat keratosis pilaris. Some will even prescribe steroids. But this doctor (me, I mean) recommends some less invasive steps first—these simple changes may make your KP pack its bags without having to involve the prescription pad.

  • Get rid of ALL sodium lauryl and laureth sulfate in your hair care, your skin care, and your laundry detergent. Look for it in anything that foams.
  • Eliminate synthetic fragrances from all of those products as well.
  • Avoid super-hot showers or baths on a regular basis—they contribute to dry skin, which makes KP more likely.
  • Try a humidifier in your bedroom if you live in a dry climate.
  • Exfoliate your skin gently once or twice a week. You can do this with a washcloth in the shower, or use an exfoliating product made with salt or sugar. Remember that you should always use the gentlest pressure when exfoliating skin—it doesn’t take much to achieve the desired effect, and overexfoliating can create more inflammation.
  • Switch to an organic, handcrafted bar soap—these bars retain glycerin, which helps draw moisture to your skin throughout the day. They’re not like the average, grocery store bar soaps, which can dry out the skin. You can try a soap with pumpkin or tomato for a natural dose of fruit acids and enzymes.
  • Use a natural body oil on sopping wet skin just out of the shower every day. You provide the water by not drying off, and the body oil seals in that moisture as you rub it in with your hands. It contains fewer ingredients, which is always a plus when dealing with irritated skin.

If you’ve tried all of these things and still have symptoms, it may be time to talk to your dermatologist about prescription options, or even laser therapy, which is starting to show some promise in treating the condition. But with consistent attention to the factors listed above and to an overall healthy lifestyle, most people find that their symptoms improve significantly, and their bumpy skin is a thing of the past. I’ve received multiple emails from customers whose KP has resolved after switching to natural soap and body oil.

Move over, chicken skin. Make room for something smoother.

For the smoothest face skin of your life, try pairing these natural exfoliants with this like-magic beauty trick.

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