Keratosis Pilaris

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on January 30, 2024
8 min read

Keratosis pilaris is a common, harmless skin condition that causes small, hard bumps on your skin around clogged hair follicles. Your skin may look like it has goosebumps and feel rough like sandpaper. You may have heard it called "chicken skin."

The bumps are usually the same color as your skin, but they may look red or white on light skin and white, brown, or black on darker skin. Or they may not be discolored at all. They don't hurt but may itch.

Strawberry legs

It's another harmless skin condition that looks like keratosis pilaris. If you have strawberry legs, rough bumps form on your skin when your hair follicles get clogged. Dirt, dead skin, bacteria, and oil plug up the follicles and cause brown or black dots on your legs.

The name comes from those tiny spots, which look like the seeds on a strawberry. You may get strawberry legs if your legs are irritated after you shave or if you have folliculitis, a skin infection.

How common is it?

It's a very common skin condition. About 50%-80% of teenagers will develop this condition in their teens. Among adults, about 40% will have it at some point in adulthood.

Is keratosis pilaris contagious?

No. You can't get it from other people, and you can't give it to anyone.

Keratosis pilaris can show up just about anywhere on your body, except your palms and the soles of your feet. 

Keratosis pilaris on face

You're most likely to see keratosis on your body. But it can appear anywhere your hair follicles get clogged, including your face.

The bumps will pop up on your cheeks, neck, and under your eyes. They may look like pimples or blackheads, especially on darker skin.

The skin on your face might also turn red around the bumps, especially if it becomes inflamed. It can look like you're blushing. Your skin around the bumps will look and feel dry, too.

Keratosis pilaris on the face, especially on the cheeks, is more common in children than in teens or adults.

Keratosis pilaris on arms

The upper arms are a common spot for this condition to crop up among children, teens, and adults. It may spread down to your forearms.

Keratosis pilaris on legs

Children, teens, and adults might find keratosis pilaris on the fronts of their thighs. It can spread down to the lower legs.

Keratosis pilaris on butt

This happens more to adults and teens than to children.

Signs of keratosis pilaris include:

  • Small, painless bumps that look like goosebumps on your upper arms, thighs, and butt
  • The bumps might appear red on lighter skin and white, black, or brown on darker skin
  • Very rough, dry skin in areas with the bumps
  • Some bumps may have hair from the follicle inside them
  • Redness and small bumps on your face
  • Symptoms get worse during winter or in dry conditions

Keratosis pilaris and itching

The skin around your bumps might be itchy and dry. If the bumps are painful when you press on them, you probably have something other than keratosis pilaris.

You might have the bumps and no other symptoms at all.

Keratosis pilaris and children

The condition is more common among babies, toddlers, children, and teens. For most people, it either starts before the age of 2 or around your teen years. It may get worse in puberty, and then start to ease in your 20s.

Keratosis pilaris is caused by an accumulation of keratin, the protein that protects your skin from harmful things such as infections. The buildup forms a plug that blocks the openings of your hair follicles, but doctors don't know what triggers it.

If you have dry skin, you're more likely to have keratosis pilaris. It's usually worse in the winter months when there's less moisture in the air and then may clear up in the summer.

It often affects people with certain skin conditions, including eczema (also called atopic dermatitis).

Some evidence suggests it's linked to a vitamin A deficiency. Your condition might get better if you take a vitamin A supplement or use skin products containing vitamin A.

In addition, there may be a genetic link: You're more likely to have keratosis pilaris if a close relative has it.

Keratosis pilaris and gluten

People with gluten intolerance can get a rash that looks like keratosis pilaris. But there's no evidence that gluten is linked to keratosis pilaris.

Certain things increase the risk of keratosis pilaris. You're more likely to get it if you have: 

  • Fair skin
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Cushing's disease
  • Down syndrome
  • Diabetes
  • A close relative who has it
  • Asthma
  • Hay fever
  • Dry skin
  • Eczema
  • Ichthyosis vulgaris, a condition that causes very dry skin
  • Melanoma and are taking the drug vemurafenib

Obesity is also a risk factor.

You don't need to be tested for keratosis pilaris. Your doctor can diagnose it by looking at your skin.

There's no cure for keratosis pilaris. It usually clears up on its own over time.

Dealing with dry skin is key to managing keratosis pilaris. You can ease dryness with an over-the-counter moisturizer. Apply it several times a day, especially after a shower or bath. Look for lotions that contain ammonium lactate or alpha hydroxy acids.

Keratosis pilaris creams

Products you can apply directly to your skin may improve your symptoms. These topical exfoliants remove dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, but you have to use them daily for several weeks before you can see a change.

These include creams with ingredients such as:

  • Alpha hydroxy acid
  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Salicylic acid
  • Urea

Because they're acids, these products may cause redness or a slight burning. They're not recommended for young children. Women who are pregnant, nursing, or may become pregnant should avoid topical retinoids.

To see the most effects, use the cream two or three times a day. Apply it right after you get out of the shower or bath to hold moisture into your skin.

You'll need a prescription for stronger creams. Some medicated creams, such as tretinoin (Atralin, Avita, Renova, and Retin-A), have a type of vitamin A. Vitamin A creams help reduce the buildup of keratin in the hair follicles. Be careful not to use too much because it can irritate your skin.

Your doctor might also prescribe a corticosteroid, or steroid medicine, to help reduce redness and soften the bumps.

Keratosis pilaris laser treatments

Laser beams aimed at the skin are sometimes used to treat severe redness and inflammation. It isn't a cure, but it may provide some relief when creams and lotions aren't enough. You might need several sessions for this treatment to work.

You can take steps at home to improve your keratosis pilaris symptoms.

It's important to remove dead skin cells, also known as exfoliation. But you need to do it gently to avoid irritating your skin further. Use a washcloth or loofah. Don't scrub your skin hard trying to remove dead skin. Afterward, don't rub your skin; instead, pat it dry.

After you shower or bathe, apply a thick moisturizer while your skin is still damp. If you're using a medicated cream for keratosis pilaris, apply it first, then moisturizer. Reapply moisturizer several times a day.

Other steps to take:

  • Try soap that has added oil or fat.
  • Use a humidifier in your home to add moisture to the air.
  • Drink plenty of water. This will help keep your skin from drying out.

Certain natural products may help your keratosis pilaris. They include:

  • Apple cider vinegar contains an alpha hydroxy acid. You'll want to water it down to avoid irritating your skin. Apply the mixture to a cotton ball and then rub it on your skin.
  • Baking soda is a natural exfoliant. You can make a paste of baking soda and water and gently rub it on your skin to remove dead skin cells. Be sure to rinse off all the residue.
  • Coconut oil is a natural moisturizer and also has anti-inflammatory properties. It might cut down on your skin's redness and improve the way it looks.

Keratosis pilaris doesn't cause any harm to your body. The biggest complication may be that it makes you self-conscious about your appearance.

Keratosis pilaris popping

One possible complication is scarring, which usually results from picking at or trying to pop keratosis pilaris bumps.

Here are some tips to make living with keratosis pilaris easier:

  • Don't scratch at the bumps or rub your skin roughly.
  • Use warm water rather than hot for bathing and showering.
  • Limit your time in the water to about 10 minutes. Water washes away your body's natural oils that help keep skin moist.
  • Don't wear tight clothes (friction can irritate your skin).
  • Consider laser hair removal. Both shaving and waxing can make keratosis pilaris worse.
  • Avoid self-tanner, which can make the bumps more visible.

If you have a skin condition like keratosis pilaris, you may feel self-conscious, which can affect your mental health. Experts have studied ways to help people with skin conditions manage those feelings. One small study found that support groups and meditation helped the mental health of some people with skin conditions.

One of the most important things you can do, according to experts, is to develop a sense of control over your condition. That may involve hypnosis, biofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy, guided imagery, or some other technique. Simply having a skin care routine and following it may also give you a sense of control.

Keratosis pilaris is a skin condition that causes small, hard bumps around your hair follicles. It's commonly found on the upper arms, thighs, face, and butt. Your skin might feel itchy and dry. There's no cure, but you can develop a skin care routine that may ease your symptoms and improve how your skin looks. It often gets worse in puberty and then goes away as you get closer to 30.

How do you get rid of keratosis pilaris?

There's no cure for keratosis pilaris. But you can make your skin look and feel better if you keep it exfoliated and moisturized. Some over-the-counter creams and home remedies can help. If your condition really bothers you, a dermatologist can offer other treatments.

What can be mistaken for keratosis pilaris?

If you have gluten intolerance, you might get a blistering rash on your face called dermatitis herpetiformis, which can be mistaken for keratosis pilaris. Keratosis pilaris isn't linked to gluten intolerance.

What deficiency causes keratosis pilaris?

There's some evidence that keratosis pilaris might be linked to not getting enough vitamin A. Taking a vitamin A supplement and using skin products that contain vitamin A might improve your symptoms.

Is it OK to squeeze keratosis pilaris?

Picking at or trying to pop your keratosis pilaris bumps won't do anything to help your condition and might lead to permanent scars.