Each of our complexions is super unique, just like everything else about us. And naturally, everyone has a different idea of what healthy, beautiful skin looks and feels like. But there are two factors that consistently show up in the dream dermal equation: texture and tone. When either of them is compromised, there can be cause for concern.
Keratosis pilaris is one of those troubling textural skin conditions. Formally known as follicular hyperkeratosis and casually as KP, it occurs when the protein keratin builds up and blocks a bunch of hair follicles thereby creating a stretch of bumpy, dry skin. It might sound serious but it’s actually quite harmless albeit understandably concerning for those experiencing it. “It’s an asymptomatic condition, but it does cause distress to patients because it can appear on the arms, cheeks, upper back, thighs and then those areas have all of these rough bumps,” explains board-certified dermatologist and author of Inside Out Beauty: Your Prescription for Healthy, Radiant, and Acne Controlled Skin Naana Boakye, MD, MPH. “People call it strawberry skin, and they just don’t like it.”
The condition affects 40% of adults and about 50% of adolescents, says Dr. Boakye, and all skin tones are susceptible. Unfortunately, keratosis pilaris can’t be cured or prevented, but the good news is that it can be improved by implementing the right skincare and heeding expert advice. Ahead, Dr. Boakye shares her tips to help you better understand keratosis pilaris and get it under control.
Why People Get Keratosis Pilaris
“The etiology is unknown,” says Dr. Boakye. “But some think that filaggrin may play a role.” Most people have the protein filaggrin in their skin but in cases of keratosis pilaris, there is a defect or mutation. “And sometimes when there is a mutation in filaggrin in African-American skin, they get eczema as well.” It can affect all skin types, but Dr. Boakye sees it less in those with normal to oily skin, and more in patients who are already dry which makes sense since dryness is a prime issue.
How to Treat Keratosis Pilaris
Caring for the condition requires a two-pronged approach. You want to break up the rough spots, or keratosis, with exfoliation and then restore the skin through hydration. Dr. Boakye recommends exfoliating with a product (either a leave-on or wash-off formula) that has between 10% to 15% glycolic acid, salicylic acid, or lactic acid three times a week. You could also slough away scaly skin by using a dry brush on your body before you get in the shower but be careful not to overdo it. Then you want to apply moisturizer with ingredients like ceramides, ammonia lactate, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin regularly to the affected area. There are both prescription and over-the-counter options. And if your KP is on your cheeks, go easy—it’s safer to save more aggressive treatment for your body.
It’s important to note that some may experience hyperpigmentation with KP. “They may want to consider using a skin-brightening ingredient like azelaic acid, which can help,” says Dr. Boakye. Some people also have some success using retinoids to not only reduce the keratosis but also even out skin tone. As for things you can do in your dermatologist’s office, laser treatments are an option although Dr. Boakye has seen success controlling KP with just over-the-counter treatments. “By lasering, you’re creating a wound, and with the wound creation, you’re helping to break up the keratosis, and it can also help with pigmentation,” explains Dr. Boakye. Expect three treatments one month apart to start and then one every nine months or so for maintenance.
What Aggravates Keratosis Pilaris
Anything that makes skin dry will worsen the situation. You may have heard these doctor’s orders before: Take short showers with warm water. Long, hot showers will only proliferate dryness. Leave a bit of water on your skin afterward to help your moisturizer sink in. You can also keep a humidifier in your bedroom to mitigate arid air. And unsurprisingly, sun exposure sans SPF is also a no-no. “UV light always damages your skin, and if your skin is already damaged, you want to minimize UV exposure,” says Dr. Boakye. Also, don’t go overboard on the exfoliation. You can create more hyperpigmentation that way. “In darker skin patients, that’s what bothers them most, not even the condition. They just hate the pigmentation.” As with any chronic skin condition, frustration and stress are understandable so seek treatment from a dermatologist to help you navigate your concerns.