Have you ever experienced “chicken skin” on your arms or legs? If so, you’re not alone. Keratosis pilaris is a common skin condition, affecting nearly 50–80 percent of adolescents and 40 percent of adults. (1) It looks like tiny, rough-feeling bumps on the skin that may be mistaken for small pimples. But, it’s a completely different skin issue.
Although keratosis pilaris is harmless, it can be embarrassing and even socially damaging. Most medications and over-the-counter treatments don’t yield results, but there are natural skin care remedies that will help to minimize the appearance of these sandpaper bumps and leave your skin looking clearer.
What Is Keratosis Pilaris?
Keratosis pilaris (KP) is the formation of rough-feeling bumps on the surface of the skin caused by plugged hair follicles. Many people refer to keratosis pilaris as chicken skin because of the rough texture that forms in areas like the arms and cheeks. These bumps are technically called “follicular keratotic papules.” They can affect any skin surface where hair grows. (2a)
Keratosis pilaris atrophicans is a group of related disorders, and it’s characterized by inflammatory keratotic papules. This inflammatory skin reaction may cause alopecia and scarring. (2b) Meanwhile, erythromelanosis follicularis faciei et colli (EFFC) is another related but much more rare skin condition, and it’s associated with KP over affected areas. EFFC is recognized by reddish-brown patches, usually on the cheeks and ears. (2c)
Although keratosis pilaris is a benign condition, it can be unsightly. It can even be psychologically damaging, especially because it occurs most commonly among adolescents. There is no cure for this condition. But, if you’re wondering how to get rid of KP, you can manage it with natural keratosis pilaris treatments. These treatments involve daily moisturizing, gentle exfoliating and using mild, non-irritating body soaps.
Keratosis Pilaris Signs and Symptoms
How do you diagnose keratosis pilaris? The most prominent symptom of KP is small, dry bumps that can feel a bit like sandpaper or goosebumps. The bumps are usually white. But sometimes they appear red, or a reddish-pink color may develop around the bumps. The number of bumps in one location varies, as a person can develop 10, 50 even 100 small bumps in one area.
According to research published in the International Journal of Trichology, the most common site of KP is the surface of the upper arms, occurring in 92 percent of patients. Other common areas are the thighs, with a 59 percent prevalence, and the buttocks, occurring in 30 percent of patients. Some people also develop bumps on their face, especially the cheeks, which is commonly mistaken for acne. (3)
Although the skin condition is usually harmless, it can leave your skin feeling itchy, rough and dry. It typically worsens in the cold weather months. Dry skin can actually make the bumps stand out and appear more noticeable.
Research shows that because keratosis pilaris symptoms commonly develop among adolescents, the skin condition may have a psychosocial impact. In fact, it has been associated with developmental issues of body image, sexuality and socialization. Data collected by researchers in Thailand shows that for 40 percent of those with keratosis pilaris, it has significant effects on self-image and impacts their quality of life. (4)
Causes and Risk Factors
Researchers still don’t fully understand the causes of KP. But, they believe that the buildup of keratin forms plugs in the openings of hair follicles. Keratin is a fibrous structural protein found in your hair, nails and epithelial cells that make up the outermost layer of your skin. It’s an essential building block of your skin, necessary for skin to keep regenerating.
Usually dead skin cells containing keratin will flake off the skin. But for some people, keratin builds up in the hair follicles and causes clogged pores. This results in the small, rough bumps associated with keratosis pilaris. Inside the plugged hair follicles, there may also be one or more twisted hairs; in fact, some scientists believe that keratosis pilaris is actually caused by thick hairs that form large coils under the superficial epidermis, or outer layers of the skin. Studies analyzing this theory suggest that the circular hair shaft ruptures follicle cells, leading to inflammation and abnormal keratin release. (5)
Because dead, dry skin causes keratosis pilaris, it can become worse in the winter months or when the skin dries out in low-humidity weather. When researchers at Amersham General Hospital in the U.K. conducted a survey involving 49 patients, 80 percent of them reported a seasonal variation in the severity of keratosis pilaris symptoms. Forty-nine percent of patients experienced improved symptoms in the summer months and 47 percent reported worsened symptoms in the winter. (6)
Research suggests that keratosis pilaris is genetic and it may be associated with genetic skin conditions, like atopic dermatitis, a type of eczema. In a 2015 study involving 50 patients, 67 percent of them had a family history of keratosis pilaris.
Age is another major risk factor for this skin condition. It appears frequently in childhood, reaching its peak prevalence in adolescence and disappearing by adulthood. A study published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that keratosis pilaris symptoms improved with age in 35 percent of the participants. The mean age of improvement was 16 years. (7)
There is no cure for keratosis pilaris, but you can treat the symptoms with ongoing maintenance. Conventional forms of treatment involve using moisturizing lotions that contain lactic acid, salicylic acid, glycolic acid and urea. These are keratolytic agents that thin the skin on and around areas where lesions or excess skin has developed.
In a 2015 study published in Dermatology Research and Practice, the efficacy and tolerability of using creams with 10 percent lactic acid and 5 percent salicylic acid for the treatment of keratosis pilaris were evaluated. After 12 weeks of treatment, both the lactic acid and salicylic acid groups showed a significant reduction of lesions. The greatest reduction of symptoms occurred in the first four weeks and then declined after that. There was a greater number of adverse reactions among participants in the lactic acid group. These participants complained more about an unpleasant smell and irritation, such as a burning or itchy sensation, after applying the cream.
Although these treatments involving keratolytic agents appear effective, they do not cure the skin condition. Plus they must used on an ongoing basis in order to keep keratosis pilaris symptoms at bay. The side effects of these chemical treatments may also vary from person to person, being more severe in people with sensitivities. (8)
Pulsed dye laser targets are another type of treatment used to reduce the redness that’s associated with keratosis pilaris. A study conducted at the University Hospital of Wales in the U.K. found that pulsed dye laser therapy served as a safe and effective treatment for redness. But it did not significantly improve skin roughness. (9)
This may be a beneficial treatment option for people with fair skin who are looking to reduce the patchy redness on their cheeks or other noticeable areas of the body. The downside of this treatment is that most insurance companies don’t cover it. Also, it can cost a few hundred dollars per session. Case studies suggest that it takes one to four sessions to start seeing improvements. Plus, redness can return a few months after treatment. (10)
6 Natural Treatments for Keratosis Pilaris
1. Gently Exfoliate with Sea Salt
The key to removing dead skin and unplugging the hair follicles is to gently exfoliate without irritating the skin and adding to the problem. Use gentle and natural exfoliators, like sea salt, which contains anti-inflammatory properties to soothe the skin, remove dead skin cells and help the skin to maintain moisture levels. (11)
Make your own homemade scrub by mixing two teaspoons of sea salt with four teaspoons of raw honey. Raw honey has moisturizing properties and it’s a natural source of skin-boosting nutrients and acids. Apply the mixture evenly to the area of concern, rubbing it into the skin gently. Then let it stand for 15 minutes and rinse with warm water. Another effective combination for gently exfoliating your skin is my homemade body scrub that includes sea salt, honey, jojoba oil, coconut oil and peppermint oil.
2. Try Dry Brushing
Dry brushing helps to unclog pores and remove dead skin cells. Use a natural bristle brush and move it in long sweeping motions, brushing each area of your body. Make sure to do this before you wet your skin. Do it very gently so that you don’t irritate the skin and cause inflammation. The point is to remove the dead skin and unclog the plugged hair follicles that are causing the rough, bumpy patches. Once you’re done dry brushing, take a shower as usual and pat your skin dry. Apply a natural oil, like coconut oil, to the affected areas and the rest of your body.
3. Use Mild Soaps
Use a natural, non-toxic and mild soap in order to cleanse the sensitive areas without irritating the skin and causing even more redness and buildup. The best body soaps are made with pure, all-natural and chemical-free ingredients. One of my favorite products is Castile soap, which is traditionally made with olive oil. My homemade body wash is made with a combination of natural and beneficial ingredients, including Castile soap, honey, lavender oil, vitamin E and jojoba oil. It will help to nourish your skin without drying it out and making keratosis pilaris symptoms worse. (12)
4. Moisturize Daily
It is so important that you moisturize with natural, non-irritating products every day. When combined with gently exfoliating or dry brushing, applying a natural moisturizer like avocado to the affected areas will help to reduce inflammation and replenish hydration, leaving the skin feeling dewy instead of rough and flaky. Plus, avocado contains vitamin A, which serves as another keratosis pilaris treatment because it can help to reduce redness and support skin cells. Try my homemade avocado face mask on red and bumpy areas; leave it on for 20-30 minutes and then rinse it with warm water.
Some natural moisturizers that you can leave on your skin include coconut oil, aloe vera and jojoba oil. One of the best tools for your skin is coconut oil, which is known for fighting chronic skin conditions. It has anti-inflammatory properties and it helps to cleanse, moisturize and heal the skin. (13) After showering, apply coconut oil to your entire body (especially to the red and rough areas) while your skin is still damp. Then let your body air-dry or use a clean towel to pat dry.
5. Use a Humidifier
Because keratosis pilaris symptoms tend to get worse during the winter months when the skin is typically drier, using a humidifier in your bedroom can help to reduce skin patchiness and redness. It’s the low humidity that dries out your skin. So, adding moisture to the air inside your home, especially at night when you spend the longest amount of time inside, can help to relieve symptoms.
6. Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Eating anti-inflammatory foods is a good idea for a keratosis pilaris diet that helps to heal and hydrate the body may help to relieve symptoms. These foods supply essential vitamins and minerals the body needs for proper skin cell growth, lesion healing and skin hydration. (14) Eat plenty of green leafy vegetables that are rich in antioxidants, beets that help to repair cells and berries that help to reduce swelling. It’s also important to eat plenty of omega-3 foods, like wild-caught salmon, because they are potent anti-inflammatory substances. And, of course, drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep your body hydrated.
If any of these keratosis pilaris treatments are irritating your skin and making symptoms worse, stop using that technique immediately. Make sure to exfoliate very gently — just enough to remove the dead skin cells from the top layer of your skin. If you decide to use creams with chemical ingredients, pay close attention to the way your skin reacts. Stop treatment if the affected areas feel itchy, hot or irritated.
- Keratosis pilaris or KP is a common skin condition that affects nearly 50-80 percent of adolescents and 40 percent of adults.
- Keratosis pilaris is the formation of rough-feeling bumps on the surface of the skin that are caused by plugged hair follicles. Many people refer to keratosis pilaris as chicken skin because of the rough texture that forms in areas like the arms, thighs, buttocks and cheeks.
- Symptoms usually develop among adolescents and the prevalence decreases with age. Keratosis pilaris also seems to be genetic.
- The most effective way to treat keratosis pilaris is to remove dead skin cells by gently exfoliating, moisturizing the skin daily and avoiding irritating, toxic chemical soaps.
- The best skin care ingredients to use for keratosis pilaris treatment include coconut oil, jojoba oil, lavender essential oil, sea salt, raw honey, avocado and Castile soap.