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Keratosis pilaris

Keratosis pilaris (ker-uh-TOE-sis pih-LAIR-is) is a common skin condition that causes rough patches and small, acne-like bumps, usually on the arms, thighs, cheeks and buttocks. Keratosis pilaris bumps are usually white, sometimes red, and generally don't hurt or itch. Keratosis pilaris can be frustrating because it's difficult to treat. However, keratosis pilaris isn't often serious and usually disappears by age 30. In the meantime, prescription medications and self-care measures can improve the appearance of keratosis pilaris.

Symptoms Causes Prevention

Keratosis pilaris can occur at any age, although it's particularly common in young children. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Small white or red bumps, typically on the upper arms, legs, buttocks or cheeks
  • Dry, rough and sometimes itchy skin in the areas with bumps
  • Worsening in winter, when humidity is low and skin tends to be drier

Keratosis pilaris may be limited to individual, sandpaper-like bumps resembling goose flesh. In some cases, the bumps may become inflamed and cause scarring, especially on the face.

Gradually, keratosis pilaris usually resolves on its own.

When to see a doctor

Keratosis pilaris isn't often a serious medical condition, and treatment usually isn't necessary. However, if you're concerned about the appearance of your skin, consult your family doctor or a specialist in skin diseases (dermatologist). He or she can often make a diagnosis by examining your skin and the characteristic scaly plugs.

Keratosis pilaris results from the buildup of keratin — a hard protein that protects your skin from harmful substances and infection. The keratin forms a scaly plug that blocks the opening of the hair follicle. Usually many plugs form, causing patches of rough, bumpy skin.

Why keratin builds up is unknown. But it may occur in association with genetic diseases or with other skin conditions, such atopic dermatitis. Keratosis pilaris also occurs in otherwise healthy people. Dry skin tends to worsen this condition.

Although there's no way to prevent keratosis pilaris, you can take steps to keep your skin moist and healthy:

  • Moisturize your skin. Moisturizers provide a seal over your skin to keep water from escaping. Thicker moisturizers work best, such as the over-the-counter brands Eucerin and Cetaphil.
  • Use warm water and limit bath time. Hot water and long showers or baths remove oils from your skin. Limit your bath or shower time to about 10 minutes or less, and use warm, rather than hot, water.
  • Avoid harsh, drying soaps. Choose mild soaps that have added oils and fats, such as Neutrogena, Basis or Dove. Avoid deodorant and antibacterial detergents, which are especially harsh. You might want to experiment with several brands until you find one that works particularly well for you. A good rule of thumb is that your skin should feel soft and smooth after cleansing, never tight or dry.
  • Pat dry. After washing or bathing, gently pat or blot your skin dry with a towel so that some moisture remains on the skin. Immediately moisturize your skin with an oil or cream.
  • Use a humidifier. Low humidity dries out your skin. A portable home humidifier or one attached to your furnace adds moisture to the air inside your home. Portable humidifiers come in many varieties. Choose one that meets your budget and any special needs. And be sure to keep your humidifier clean to ward off bacteria and fungi.
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