You know those annoying red bumps on the back of your arms and thighs that make you look like you’re constantly cold? The ones that you don’t know how to get rid of? Turns out they’re not permanent goose bumps, a rash, or a mild form of pox. They’re called keratosis pilaris (also known as ‘chicken skin’) and it's actually a super common skin condition – so don’t be embarrassed!
While they’re often mistaken for acne, these pesky sandpaper-like bumps are actually a build-up of keratin (a hair protein) that clogs up the opening of your pore. So basically, the excess keratin produces a little bump where the hair should be.
Biologi’s dermal specialist Lucy Kuper says, “It is when someone’s skin produces too much keratin protein which then blocks the hair follicles and causes bumps or patches on the skin. These bumps can be white or red in colour, and whilst they may cause annoyance or embarrassment for the sufferer, they are not a medically serious condition.”
What actually causes said build-up? Well, feel free to blame your parents for this one, because keratosis pilaris is something you inherit. “For a lot of people, it is a genetic condition that runs in the family,” says Kuper.
“Whilst the keratin protein protects skin from infections, too much of it can cause the pesky bumps [known as] keratosis pilaris. Keratosis pilaris commonly appears on the upper arms and thighs, but can also appear on the cheeks and buttocks,” she says.
While there’s no exact cure for it (bummer, we know), sometimes you’ll find this skin condition just goes away on its own (hurrah!). “Many people often suffer from the condition when they’re younger, however it can go away on its own in a person’s 30s.”
So, what do we do when these tiny bumps just won’t go away? While it's a harmless skin condition, these rough bumps can be super annoying to deal with - especially in the winter months when your dry skin makes them even more obvious. The good news is that there are some things that you can do to help ease the symptoms. Here are a dermal therapist’s top tips for smoother, more even skin.
Don’t pick at the bumps
Rule one: Absolutely no squeezing allowed! Kuper says you should not, under any circumstance, try to pop these small bumps. We know we say this for all kinds of pimples and then sometimes give you tips on how to do it if you absolutely *have* to (cheeky, we know), but for real – these ones aren’t to be squeezed! Unlike pimples, these small bumps do not contain bacteria and pus, so by squeezing and picking at them you’re likely to cause redness, inflammation, and worse, scarring.
Exfoliate a couple of times a week
As mentioned, keratosis pilaris is something you inherit, so don’t beat yourself up and think of it as some profound failing on the exfoliation front. Exfoliating your skin can just help improve the condition of your bumps. “Whilst there is no known ‘cure’ for keratosis pilaris, doctors or dermatologists may prescribe a myriad of creams and lotions with the main aim of exfoliation and hydration in mind,” says Kuper.
But don’t go too crazy with your loofah and exfoliating body cleanser – if you go too hard, too soon, you can end up irritating the bumps and making them worse. “Just remember that exfoliation is the double-edged-sword of most skin care regimens - regular exfoliation supports cellular turnover by removing dead skin cells from the outer layers of the skin, but, exfoliate too much and you’re likely to end up skin that is more irritated than before,” says Kuper.
“We highly recommend an enzyme exfoliator rather than a harsh scrub because enzyme exfoliants break down the protein that creates the dead cells but don’t directly remove cells (so they won’t harm your healthy skin cells in any way). Whilst grainy scrubs may feel like they’re getting the job done better, they can actually be quite abrasive and cause micro-tears in your skin.”
Slather on a moisturiser daily
If you have keratosis pilaris, it’s best to look out for lotions that contain alpha hydroxy acids (like glycolic acid and lactic acid) to exfoliate and smooth out the skin, and avoid products with fragrances or dyes as these can easily cause irritation. Try Paula’s Choice Revealing Body Lotion with 10% AHA (was $43 now $34.40 at Paula's Choice) or Lanate Face & Body Cream ($26.49 at Chemist Warehouse).
Kuper also suggests reaching for an intensely hydrating and soothing body oil, as it will penetrate deeply into the epidermis. “We recommend exfoliating once or twice a week and applying Biologi’s Bf Body Serum ($140 at Biologi), which is made from pure extract of finger lime and is a natural source of tryptophan – a powerful amino acid that will reverse damage and repair the barrier function of the skin,” says Kuper.
Visit your dermatologist
While treatment of keratosis pilaris isn’t usually necessary, you can seek medical advice from your dermatologist to discuss other options, like medicated creams or laser treatments.
Erin Docherty is a Beauty Writer for BEAUTYcrew, Beauty Editor for Women's Health magazine and a Grooming Writer for Men's Health magazine. She has a keen interest in cosmeceutical skin care and is currently working on minimising her 9-step skin care routine – because ain’t nobody got time for that. When she’s not writing about the latest beauty news, or applying copious amounts of serum, you can find her spending all her money in Sephora.