A Full Guide To Keratosis Pilaris: Misconceptions, Treatments & Product Recs
I've had rough red bumps on the back of my upper arms since I can remember. When I was younger, all I knew for sure was that my mom had it, as did my best friend in elementary school—so I figured there was probably nothing wrong with it.
But as I grew older, I started to become intensely insecure about this blotchy, textured area of my body. So self-conscious that I'd always find a way to incorporate a shawl into my outfit or layer self-tanner on my skin in an attempt to minimize the redness (to be honest, I still do the latter).
I spent much of high school searching for a cure of sorts, both online and at the derm, just to find out there is none. After much back and fourth, I settled on the decision to just let it be and accept that it's really not that big of a deal.
Now that I'm a beauty journalist, I've taken a particular interest in this common skin concern. While I don't find myself in despair over my KP anymore, I know I definitely did at one point. Hence, why I've consulted experts to deliver the most up-to-date, realistic remedies to help ease your KP, even a little bit.
The 101 on KP
That number goes up to 75% when you factor in anyone with eczema or ichthyosis vulgaris—a genetic skin condition leading to super-dry skin.
"Keratosis pilaris is a harmless skin condition that consists of small red, brown, or pink painless bumps caused by an accumulation of dead skin cells and proteins that fills the hair follicular openings," board-certified dermatologist Nava Greenfield, M.D., FAAD, explains.
This creates a rough texture where every hair follicle is accompanied by a bump. KP is also referred to as "chicken skin" or "strawberry legs."
You'll most often find KP on the back of the arms, thighs, butt, legs, and cheeks. Most of the time the bumps are accompanied by redness or dryness, but it ranges from person to person.
"For over 50 years, the medical community has treated KP as a problem of excess keratin and incorrect hair maturation, but newer evidence shows that those are symptoms, not the underlying cause," Mikailov says.
KP actually has more to do with your sebaceous, or oil-producing, glands.
"When sebaceous glands are not functional or are completely missing, the oils, fats, and acids naturally required to promote healthy hair follicle growth and skin turnover are lacking. That ultimately leads to the follicles becoming 'plugged,' followed by the bumps, along with redness and inflammation," Mikailov explains.
The 6 things we're getting wrong right now
While there isn't a cure quite yet, there are plenty of things that can make your KP worse. Below, a few things to avoid:
- Scrubbing too hard: Anyone with KP has probably tried to literally scrub it off (yes, myself included), but that does more harm than good. "Harshly rubbing these bumps will only cause further irritation to the skin. Irritated skin has less ability to correct itself," Greenfield says.
- Maxing out chemical exfoliants: Speaking of exfoliants, the chemical method should be taken with caution as well. "While some people can tolerate stronger chemical exfoliators, the majority cannot," Mikailov notes. This means AHAs below 7% potency, he says. If you go for a super-strong chemical exfoliant, you run the risk of damaging your skin barrier and even infections. "Excess use of exfoliants can cause contact dermatitis by disrupting the skin barrier. This can cause the skin to become red, itch, scaly, and irritated," board-certified dermatologist Brendan Camp, M.D., FAAD, explains.
- Using manual razors or waxing: You may have KP in an area you want to remove hair from, but that shouldn't be done carelessly. If you opt for a manual razor or waxing, it could make your KP worse. "Manual razors have blades that closely meet and tug or pull on the skin, which can cause inflammation and can get caught on some of the bumps, making this an option to avoid if one has this skin condition," Greenfield says.
- Assuming KP only shows up on the arms: While KP does show up on the back of the arms, that's not the only place you'll find it. These bumps often show up in other areas like the legs, butt, and yes, even on the face. It's definitely more difficult to spot KP on the face, given that it can look similar to whitehead pimples and clogged pores that are completely unrelated. But the treatment for each is quite different, so ask your derm if you think you have KP on your face if your acne remedies just aren't working.
- Relying on sun exposure: "Before medical school, I would try to tan every summer to camouflage my KP bumps," Mikailov says. "Not only does it not help, tanning can lead to UV damage that can lead to skin cancer," he adds. Plus, excess sun exposure can lead to sunburn and dryness—two factors that will make your KP bump appear more irritated and uneven.
- Overusing corticosteroid creams: "Because there is redness and inflammation associated with KP, some people reach for corticosteroid creams to calm it," Mikailov says. "However, I rarely recommend this, only in cases where the redness is quite significant and causing daily discomfort."
The 7 steps you need to know
Now on to what can actually help ease your KP:
Exfoliate gently but regularly.
As mentioned earlier, you have a few different options for exfoliation. You can reach for gentle exfoliating scrubs that contain smooth exfoliant beads, or try a gentle chemical exfoliant.
As for dry brushing, it's neither recommended nor discouraged. "Some people anecdotally swear by dry brushing, but I have not seen any good reports of dry brushing improving KP. In fact, I have seen more adverse effects from dry brushing," Mikailov says. Personally, dry brushing helps to ease my KP. But I know for many people it can cause irritation, so just keep it in your routine if you notice a positive change.
Take cooler showers.
"We all love a long, hot shower on a cold day or after a stressful day, but that strips the skin of its natural oils, even for people without KP," Mikailov says.
"Keep showers as short as possible using lukewarm water," he recommends, especially if you're prepping for a big event where your KP will be on display. This way, any redness will be minimized rather than exacerbated.
Always moisturize after the shower.
As mentioned earlier, KP bumps can be caused by inactive sebaceous glands, which is why moisturizing these areas is critical to achieving a smooth canvas.
"While most people are now familiar with repairing the skin barrier, not everyone is familiar with repairing the lipid barrier of the skin," Mikailov says.
He recommends a moisturizer rich in lipids that resemble the skin's natural sebum production, so it can function normally as it would without the KP—more on product recommendations to come.
Self-tanners won't work for everyone with KP and may even make some bumps more pronounced. However, I recommend giving it a shot if you're curious. When I use natural and nonirritating self-tanners, I find the redness is masked almost completely.
"If you'd like to integrate a self-tan product into your routine, unscented self-tanning drops are the best option," Greenfield says.
Skip the fragrance-rich products.
I love a scented body lotion here and there but never for my KP spots. Greenfield recommends steering clear of them as well: "Fragranced products can cause itching, burning, redness, and/or other uncomfortable symptoms."
Use electric razors.
Instead of shaving with a manual razor, greenfield recommends electric options. Her go-to pick: the Philips Shaver 6000 Series.
"A cover over the blades keeps them from touching your skin too closely to irritate or cut it. This shields you from nicks, helps prevent ingrown hairs, and can lessen the chance of razor bumps, in turn not irritating your keratosis pilaris," she explains.
In addition, try not to shave every single day if you can help it—the less irritation in this area, the better.
Treat your KP with kindness.
I've been through the picking, scrubbing, and waxing, and let me tell you—treating your skin like a punching bag is not going to make your KP go away. Instead, nourish it with high-quality lotions, and gently slough away dead skin when needed.
If you're in the habit of picking off your KP bumps, consult your dermatologist. This can lead to scarring and may stem from other stressors in your life. Skin picking is super common, especially with fodder like KP bumps to tug on.
3 extra ideas—in case you've tried those above
Look—sometimes KP is just too stubborn for the basic protocol. If you've already tried the routine above, consider visiting your dermatologist for the following:
- Retinoids: "Prescription medications, such as tretinoin, are sometimes used off-label to treat keratosis pilaris," Camp says. "Retinoids like tretinoin help regulate cell turnover, which prevents the accumulation of dead skin in hair follicles." If you don't want to visit the derm, try a retinol body lotion and see if it helps. If you spot irritation, stick with gentle exfoliation and moisturizer.
- Lasers for texture: You may also want to ask your dermatologist about laser treatment. In one small 2016 study, fractional carbon lasers were effective in treating KP2. This doesn't mean lasers are for everyone, but it could be helpful for certain KP bumps.
- Laser hair removal: While electric shavers are better than manual razors for KP bumps, laser hair removal is the most effective option for some people. However, lasers are not always accessible, affordable, or recommended for all skin types or skin tones, so check with your derm before booking an appointment.
The 5 products to try
Best moisturizer: KP Away Keratosis Pilaris Lipid Repair Emollient
- Plant-based fatty acids
- Safe for everyone
- Cost effective
Developed by Mikailov himself, this product is seriously a game changer. I've been using it for the past two weeks and I can already say it's the best KP product I've ever tried. Not to mention, the container is huge so you definitely get a bang for your buck. The formula is rich, yet fast absorbing. Fragrance-free, yet doesn't have a weird natural scent. And finally—you can even use it on KP facial bumps, so you don't have to buy two different products if you don't want to.
Best scrub: Skinfix Glycolic Renewing Scrub
- Made by derms
- Contains AHAs & BHAs
- Helps with crepey skin
This scrub is one in a million: It contains AHAs, BHAs, and gentle physical exfoliants for a 3-in-1 action. It's a dream for anyone with KP bumps, but serves as a general grade-A body scrub for anywhere you need a pick me up. The formula is packed with hydrating butters and oils to buffer the powerful exfoliants too.
Best splurge: U Beauty Resurfacing Body Compound
- AHAs & BHAs
- Shea butter
I know this one is a bit pricey, but it's a worthy splurge. This resurfacing body compound has endless benefits: It contains a unique blend of AHAs, BHAs, and flower acids for gentle yet effective exfoliation, paired with nourishing peptides and shea butter to restore the barrier. It can be used anywhere you notice uneven bumps or texture on the body, KP included.
Best affordable serum: Oui The People Resurfacing Body Serum
- Contains AHAs, BHAs, & PHAs
- Amino acids support collagen
- Sea kelp supports the skin barrier
Now if you want an extra step between shower and moisturizer, this serum is worth the added time. A blend of lactic and salicylic acids are joined by gluconolacctone—a super gentle PHA. It absorbs within seconds, which is ideal for anyone who hates a sticky residue. This one is quite powerful, so it may not be the best for sensitive skin types, but will provide noticeable results for those stubborn KP bumps.
Best bar: Soft Services Buffing Bar
- Powerful microcrystals
- Shea butter
- Aloe vera
- Use once or twice weekly
This buffing bar is a mindbodygreen beauty team favorite for many reasons from shaving prep to glowy legs and yes, even smoothing KP. The creamy bar is filled with gentle microcrystals that help to slough off dead skin without tearing apart your barrier. It's budget-friendly, sustainable, and it lasts for so long. It's a powerful bar, though, so stick with weekly or twice weekly use on KP bumps.
The beauty breakdown
Keratosis pilaris is a harmless skin condition that currently has no cure. However, there are many ways to ease its appearance and rough texture should you want to. Remember to exfoliate gently, moisturize daily, and never pick at your bumps. For those with KP on the face, make sure it's not whiteheads you're dealing with—here's the 101 on those bumps.