What Are Those Bumps on Your Arms — and How Can You Get Rid of Them?

Easy treatments for keratosis pilaris

Bumps on arm keratosis pilaris

It’s finally tank-top season, but your upper arms are looking like a plucked chicken. What’s with those tiny pimple-like bumps that make your skin feel like sandpaper?

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Let us introduce you to keratosis pilaris or KP. “It’s totally harmless and super common,” says dermatologist Alok Vij, MD.

That doesn’t make the unsightly speckles any less annoying. Dr. Vij shares the easiest ways to banish the bumps.

What is keratosis pilaris?

KP occurs when keratin, a protein in skin, builds up around the hair follicles. The result is rough, raised bumps that can look skin-colored, white, brown or red. It’s particularly common on the upper arms, but can show up in other spots, too, including the thighs or face.

The bumps are more common in kids and teenagers, who often outgrow them. But for some individuals, KP has staying power. People with eczema are also more likely to experience the (not-so-joyful) joys of KP.

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Treating keratosis pilaris

If KP is bugging you, your first instinct might be to grab a loofah and start scrubbing. But step away from the exfoliators.

Abrasive scrubs and body brushes can trigger your skin to make even more of the protein that’s causing KP.

So how can you get the smooth skin of your dreams? “It’s always better to moisturize than to try to scratch the bumps away,” he says.

Dr. Vij recommends these three ingredients, all available in over-the-counter products found in most drugstores.

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  1. Ceramides. These proteins help skin hold onto moisture. Moisturizers with ceramides can help reduce roughness in people with KP. (The ingredient also helps fight eczema, so it’s a good choice if you’re dealing with both skin problems.)
  2. Urea. Urea is a naturally occurring molecule that helps dissolve the keratin protein gumming up the follicles. It’s in many drugstore moisturizers. Your doctor can also prescribe creams with a higher concentration of urea.
  3. Ammonium lactate. This ingredient also helps dissolve the buildup that causes KP’s telltale bumps and redness. It’s a little bit sticky, Dr. Vij warns, so it’s not everyone’s first choice. But if you don’t have luck with ceramides or urea, it’s worth a shot.

Tips for tackling KP

Getting rid of KP takes some patience. Dr. Vij recommends:

  • Use one of the recommended moisturizers daily for four to six weeks.
  • If you don’t notice improvement, try one of the other types.
  • If THAT doesn’t work, you might have to combine two ingredients or see a dermatologist for a prescription-strength option.
  • Once you find a cream that works for you, you’ll likely have to keep using it to keep the bumps at bay.

Some people with KP are more bothered by the redness than the roughness — especially those with fair skin, and those who have KP on the face. In those cases, laser treatments done in a dermatologist’s office can help fade the red, Dr. Vij says.

You may need some trial and error to get rid of the chicken skin. But if KP is making you crazy, it’s nice to know that a trip to the drugstore might be all you need to send those little bumps packing.  

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