Do you know what “chicken skin” is? No, I’m not talking about the savory coating on your favorite picnic entrée. I’m referring to red, bumpy skin (often on the back of the arms) that plagues up to 40% of adults.
If you’re among them, you’ve probably tried a variety of solutions to smooth out your skin. But if you’ve been treating this skin like other problem bumps, such as acne, you probably haven’t gotten great results.
While “chicken skin” may resemble acne or even permanent goosebumps, this skin condition is a bit different. This condition, called keratosis pilaris (KP), isn’t the result of bacteria or oil overproduction. It’s actually the result of an overproduction of keratin.
You may recognize keratin as a key part of hair and nails. It’s an important building-block protein. But if your body makes too much, it can plug up your hair follicles. These blockages lead to red or white bumps that may be itchy. Or the trapped hair may look like thicker skin. And the skin surrounding KP bumps often gets red and inflamed.
More than three million people receive a KP diagnosis each year. It’s most common on the upper arms, upper thighs, and cheeks. If you do have it on your face, you may have confused it with acne. But treating it requires a different approach.
You may have noticed that your KP gets worse in the winter. That’s because dry skin can also clog up the follicles. And together, the dry skin and keratin can trap oil. Plus, many of us are more lax about treating the skin on our body with TLC when we’ll just be covering it up anyway. But we’re in the middle of summer, so you may be ready for a real solution.
This Skin Problem Is Stubborn
If you just have dry skin, your rough skin might disappear when the cold, dry air of winter comes. Or a body scrub alone might be enough to keep the problem at bay. But it won’t be enough for KP. Keratin is stubborn. You won’t be able to just slough it away. In fact, if you’ve tried that, you may have found that excessive scrubbing just made the bumps worse. But it is possible to get rid of them!
Once you eliminate KP by following the steps outlined below, you’ll have to be vigilant to keep it from coming back. That’s because KP is actually a genetic condition. If one of your parents has it, your chances of developing it are 50/50. If they’ve both got it, you’ll definitely want to keep reading.
I do have some good news for you. People with KP are often less bothered by acne than people without it. So once you know how to get rid of KP, you may get to enjoy completely clear skin.
So How Exactly Do You Get Rid of It?
Start with eliminating anything that’s making the problem worse. As I mentioned, you may need to exfoliate dry skin first. And sweat or chlorine exposure can exacerbate the issue too. So make sure you shower right away after a workout, especially if you’re a swimmer.
You can try dry brushing to remove that first layer of dead and dry skin. You can even use a gentle exfoliating product anywhere you have KP. Try an exfoliating mask or Systeme 41’s Exfoliating Scrub over the area. They aren’t just for your face! The key word is gentle, though. All you’re trying to do in this step is clear out dead skin and keep oil accumulation under control.
Once you’ve removed that layer of skin and oil, the keratin bumps will be more accessible. I know it will be tempting, but do NOT pick at them! Doing so can create scars and hyperpigmentation, just like popping pimples can. Resist the temptation. Instead, look for products that will break up the keratin naturally.
In the shower, once you’ve exfoliated, use a body wash with keratolytic properties. Keratolytic agents, such as sulfur, lactic acid, and urea, help break the bonds between keratin cells. This makes it easier to flush them away. Some of these products contain anti-inflammatory agents and salicylic acid as well, so they’ll help clear up not just KP but body acne too. And keep your shower short—under seven minutes—and lukewarm. Long, hot showers dry out your skin and keep the cycle going.
Once you’re out of the shower, the next step is to treat the keratin. Start by applying a mild acid, such as glycolic acid, alpha hydroxyl acid, salicylic acid, or more lactic acid. While “acid” may sound harsh, these ingredients will help smooth the skin and unclog your hair follicles. AmLactin 12% Moisturizing Cream is a good option to try.
Some of these products can be moisturizing on their own. But if your skin is particularly dry or itchy, you may want to top them off with another moisturizer. Make sure you choose something hypoallergenic so that it doesn’t irritate your skin further. Many people with KP find that using products that contain fragrance are irritating as well. So check your lotions, soaps, body washes, and perfumes. You may need to experiment with cutting different products out for a while to see what you’re sensitive to. I recommend Systeme 41’s Day Crème.
Other Options to Try
If you’re still having trouble, you can add one more topical product: a retinoid. This vitamin A derivative isn’t just for your face! Applying a retinoid will help your skin cells turn over faster, so you’ll experience smoother, softer skin. Just be sure you give the product a few weeks to work its magic.
If your over-the-counter pick doesn’t give you results after a couple months, talk to your dermatologist about trying a prescription-strength cream. Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Evita, or Adapalene may help. Your dermatologist can give you a good recommendation and explain the possible side effects.
Keep in mind that vitamin A can make you sensitive to the sun, so be extra vigilant about sun protection. Most of us have a good routine down for our faces, but it’s easy to forget sunscreen for your arms or legs if you’re just going out for a short walk. If you’re using a retinol or a retinoid product, stash sunscreen where you’ll see it before you head out the door.
If even a prescription cream doesn’t work, you can talk to your dermatologist about trying a pulse dye laser. This can help people whose KP is really stubborn. But you’ll want to continue to follow at least the exfoliation, acid, and moisturizer steps I outlined above to ensure the problem doesn’t recur. You can change your skincare routine, but you can’t change your genes.
It Could Be a Vitamin Deficiency
Before you visit a dermatologist for a prescription or a laser treatment, however, you may want to consider whether internal factors are contributing. KP does have a strong genetic component. But it can also be a symptom of a vitamin deficiency or an essential fatty-acid imbalance.
Omega-3 fatty acids are naturally anti-inflammatory. And I know people who have had good results treating KP by increasing their omega-3 intake. These fatty acids can help keep your skin healthy and supple.
I recommend taking an omega-3 fatty-acid product like Complete Daily Oils. If that doesn't work by itself within a few weeks, then combine it with a digestive enzyme. A formula like Integrative Digestive Formula has enzymes that work very well with the fatty acids to help clear up skin. A common issue for individuals with KP is poor fat digestion. Using a digestive enzyme can often make a significant difference for your skin not only on the backs of your arms but over your entire body. It can even improve your hair and nails. It usually takes a couple of months to begin to notice a difference, so stick with it.
You may also need to cut back on dairy. Many people find dairy to be inflammatory. The combination of inflammation and digestive woes can keep your skin from looking its best. Instead, fill your diet with inflammation-fighting fruits and vegetables. Eating small amounts of walnuts, flaxseeds, and fatty fish can boost your fatty acid intake as well.
Keep the genetic component of KP in mind when your child or teen encounters skin issues too. If you or your partner has KP, there’s a good chance your kids will inherit the issue. And KP can be easily misdiagnosed as acne or rosacea in children and teens, especially when it shows up on the face. Make sure your teen isn’t deploying everything in his or her acne arsenal when he or she actually has KP. Many acne products are drying and can make the problem worse.
Clearing up KP can take a bit of time. But with the right tools, you can break down the keratin and reveal beautiful, soft skin. Start now, and you’ll be able to show off clear, smooth arms and legs well before sweater and sweat-pant season arrives.