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Understanding “Chicken Skin” aka Keratosis Pilaris

Characterized by small, rough bumps on the surface of the skin, keratosis pilaris is a common, yet harmless skin condition. In fact, medscape.com cites that up to 80% of adolescents and 40% of adults are affected by keratosis pilaris, sometimes called KP. This, of course, doesn’t stop the feelings of frustration and embarrassment that come with having red, itchy bumps and a condition that’s nicknamed chicken skin.

Curious about keratosis pilaris, or think you may have it? Learn more about this skin condition and how it’s best treated.

What are the symptoms of keratosis pilaris?

Most often, keratosis pilaris presents as small, hard bumps on the skin’s surface. The bumps can look almost like tiny pimples and feel rough or dry — they may also be itchy and uncomfortable. These bumps tend to be lighter or redder on fair skin and darker on more pigmented skin, but can appear to be white, red, pink, light purple, brown, or black depending on the person’s skin tone.

Keratosis pilaris got its nicknames of “chicken bumps” and “chicken skin” because the affected area of keratosis pilaris can look like the plucked skin of a chicken.

The condition most commonly appears on the upper arms, back, thighs, butt, or face and can appear as just a few spots or it can overtake an entire area, looking almost like a rash.

Why do people get keratosis pilaris?

Technically, dermatologists don’t know exactly why people get KP. But they do know what it is.

When excessive amounts of keratin — the protein that protects our skin — build up at the surface, it clogs our pores (also known as hair follicles) and creates hard, rough patches of skin.

It’s generally believed to be a genetic condition, as it runs in families, and it’s more common in kids and adolescents. If you’ve got eczema or super dry skin, that tends to be a sign that your body is more likely to have that buildup of dry, dead keratin. And that means, you guessed it, you’re more susceptible to KP, too. People who have asthma, obesity, hay fever, or ichthyosis vulgaris (another skin condition that causes extra dry, flaky skin) are also at risk for KP.

Who gets Keratosis Pilaris?

The condition usually appears in young children (under the age of two) and teenagers. While it can continue as you get older, most cases clear up by adulthood.

Those who have dry skin or eczema are more prone to keratosis pilaris, and it can also be a side effect of asthma, obesity, hay fever, or ichthyosis vulgaris.

Image courtesy of WebMD.

Are there different types of keratosis pilaris?

Yes, keratosis pilaris has a few variants, based on how the condition presents and where on the body it’s found. But the two main kinds you need to know about are keratosis pilaris and keratosis pilaris rubra.

Keratosis Pilaris 

Yes, the main condition is simply called keratosis pilaris, and it can be anything from asymptomatic (that means it shows no symptom of illness) flesh-colored bumps that are rough to the touch, to red, irritated and itchy bumps.

Keratosis Pilaris Rubra

This the most common variant of KP, and it’s most commonly found on adolescent boys. KPR is still those signature rough, goosebump-like, flesh-colored patches that we’ve been describing, but the skin that surrounds and is behind these bumps is a patchy, bright red.

How do you treat KP?

Let’s start with the bad news… there’s no cure for keratosis pilaris. But the condition is technically benign and harmless, even though it may be itchy or annoying to look at. Don’t worry though, there are lots of treatment options to help alleviate the symptoms and appearance of the condition.

The best way to treat keratosis pilaris is with chemical exfoliants — alpha hydroxy acids or beta hydroxy acids. These are ingredients like salicylic acid, lactic acid, and glycolic acid that are super effective and remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin and helping to restore smoothness.

Vitamin A-derived retinoids can also be helpful for clearing hair follicles and preventing those annoying bumps from forming.

If the condition persists, ask your doctor about the possibility of microdermabrasion, light therapy, or laser treatment, all of which have been known to ease the appearance of keratosis pilaris.

Remember to always consult your doctor, and have patience — we know KP is frustrating, but it’s important to remember that it’s a harmless condition that you don’t need to worry too much about. And luckily, there are lots of effective exfoliants out there to help you scrub away your KP!

Dr. Betty Yan, a dermatology resident at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU), helped contribute to the accuracy of this story.

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