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What is keratosis pilaris and how to treat it

Young woman scratches rash on arm
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What is keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris is a very common and completely harmless skin condition that affects the appearance of the skin. Lots of people will know it better as “chicken skin” or as “strawberry legs” when it affects the legs. It’s more common in children and teenagers, but it also affects lots of adults.

If you have keratosis pilaris, there’s usually no need to get medical advice or treatment as it’s not harmful. However, if you don’t like the appearance of your skin, or if you’re experiencing other symptoms like itching or inflammation, it’s a good idea to speak to your pharmacist or GP.

What causes keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris is caused by an excess of keratin, the protein found in the hair and nails. In people with this condition, keratin builds up in the hair follicles, leading to the characteristic “goose-bump” appearance of the skin. “Keratosis” refers to the excess of keratin in the body, while “pilaris” refers to the hair follicles.

We don’t know exactly why some people develop keratosis pilaris, but it’s thought to be genetic. This means you’re more likely to have it if your parents have it. The good news is, keratosis pilaris isn’t contagious, so it’s not something you can catch or pass on.

Symptoms of keratosis pilaris

The main symptom of keratosis pilaris is the appearance of small, painless bumps on the skin, which often feel dry and rough to the touch. Depending on the colour of your skin, these bumps might be pink, red, brown or almost black. You might also experience some itching in the affected areas, which gets worse in the winter.

Keratosis pilaris tends to develop on the back of the upper arms and the front of the thighs, however it can also be found on the buttocks, back and chest. Rarely, it develops on the face.

How to get rid of keratosis pilaris

Keratosis pilaris isn’t usually something that requires medical treatment, as it isn’t harmful or painful. However, you can take some simple steps to improve the appearance of your skin if it’s bothering you.

Moisturise your skin

Keeping your skin moisturised won’t get rid of keratosis pilaris but it will help to improve the appearance of your skin and combat itching and dryness. If you aren’t sure which moisturisers are best for your skin, speak to your pharmacist.

Take lukewarm baths and showers

Bathing in really hot water can be drying for the skin and increase itching and irritation. Wherever possible, stick to lukewarm or even cool baths and showers.

Use mild soaps

Strong and heavily perfumed soaps can irritate the skin, so try to opt for gentle and fragrance-free cleansers.

Gently exfoliate

Gentle exfoliation with a washcloth or mitt clears away dead skin and helps give the skin a more smooth appearance. Just make sure you don’t scrub the skin too hard, especially when you are drying it with a towel after you’ve finished bathing.

Use chemical exfoliators

Chemical exfoliators are skincare products that contain acids like salicylic acid or lactic acid. When applied to skin affected by keratosis pilaris, these types of products can help to smooth, soften and flatten the follicles.

CeraVe has a range of products which are ideal for skin affected by keratosis pilaris:

Specialist treatment for keratosis pilaris

If your keratosis pilaris is more severe and causing you discomfort, it’s worth speaking to your GP. In very severe cases you might require a referral to a dermatologist for specialist skincare prescriptions and advice.

Dermatologist treatments that might be used for keratosis pilaris include:

  • Topical retinoids
  • Topical corticosteroids
  • Phototherapy
  • Laser therapy
  • Dermabrasion
  • Chemical peels

Not all of these will be available on the NHS, which means you may have to seek private treatment. Even still, keratosis pilaris may not respond to these kinds of treatments.

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