Keratosis pilaris, also called KP, is a harmless skin condition characterized by dryness and small painless bumps that resemble gooseflesh.
In fact, one common name for it is “chicken skin.” The rough patches most commonly occur on upper arms, thighs, buttocks, and occasionally on the face. It’s chronic, meaning that it fades and recurs or else is persistent. Keratosis pilaris can’t be cured but it can be managed; because it’s neither dangerous nor contagious, it requires no medical intervention unless for cosmetic reasons. At least 40% of the world’s population lives with some level of KP. Some estimates show that 50-80% of adolescents have it. An interesting statistic is that KP is more commonly shared by twins as well as by brothers and sisters.
Causes of Keratosis Pilaris
Keratin is the major component of hair and fingernails. Special skin cells also manufacture this protein to provide a protective barrier almost like wax on a car. When keratin and dead skin cells build up and plug the openings to the hair follicles, the resulting condition is keratosis pilaris. The exact trigger is unknown although people who already have dry skin seem more likely to develop KP. Some researchers believe that it may be genetic, finding that 30-50% or more patients report family members with the condition. Another culprit might be an improper diet that doesn’t include enough of the right vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. A deficiency of vitamin A can cause a very similar rash. External factors causing atmospheric dryness often make the symptoms more noticeable. Many people find that their KP worsens when the weather turns cold because running the heat lowers the humidity in the home.
Signs and Symptoms of Keratosis Pilaris
There’s several things to look for with keratosis pilaris. Rough patches, sometimes almost like sandpaper, form on the arms, upper thighs, buttocks, and/or cheeks. Tiny, firm bumps develop in the rough, dry areas. The bumps themselves may be the same color as the skin or may be red, grayish, or brown. Sometimes the skin is reddened but it rarely itches or hurts. Often a small hair is embedded inside some of the bumps. Although tiny keratin plugs can be expressed, it’s important to restrain from any squeezing or picking resulting in irritation and infection. The condition usually appears first in younger children, often disappears in the early 30s, but can persist for years, even throughout the lifespan. Occurring globally, keratosis pilaris appears in all ethnic and racial groups as well as all genders.
Online medical resources can provide general information but be sure to refer actual concerns to a healthcare provider. Some of the options they provide may be:
- Wait and see: This allows natural healing.
- Moisturizing the skin: Light moisturizing creams, especially after showering or bathing, will soften the skin if applied on a regular basis. Although they relieve dryness, some reviews suggest that heavy oil-based moisturizers cause comedones (blackheads or whiteheads) by clogging pores. If over-the-counter methods aren't working, prescription products might.
- Exfoliating the skin: Dead skin cells and excess keratin can be gently removed with a washcloth or loofah during bathing. Several exfoliating creams are available over-the-counter and by prescription.
- Nourishing the body: Hydration is important for the skin. A well-balanced diet with a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as fish rich in omega fatty acids will also contribute to skin health.
- Modifying the environment: Spend less time in the shower and avoid hot water, harsh soaps, and vigorous towel rubs. Run a home humidifier. Use mild laundry soap and avoid overcrowding the washer to ensure thorough rinsing. Choose soft, loose clothing to let the skin “breathe.”
Even though the dryness and bumps are harmless, taking control of KP can improve a person's self-esteem and sense of well-being. Taking the added steps to improve nutrition and hydration will definitely promote healthy, glowing skin.