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Keratosis pilaris - best treatments

Many teens suffer from rough, red pimples on the outer sides of their arms, and some may even have the same "rash" on their thighs.

What is "acne on the arms"?

The professional name of "acne on the arms" is "keratosis pilaris." The name is frightening, but the basic meaning is clogged pores. Keratosis pilaris happens when your skin pores become blocked with a build-up of keratin, resulting in rough, red pimples.

What causes keratosis pilaris?

These tiny red rough bumps that you see on your arms are plugs of dead skin cells with a dry, sandpaper-like texture. Keratosis pilaris is particularly common in children and teenagers but can affect individuals of all ages. It may remain a recurring condition for years, but generally, it disappears before 30. Though sometimes cosmetically displeasing, it is an entirely harmless condition that requires no immediate medical attention.

Keratosis pilaris develops when your hair follicles become clogged due to a build-up of keratin, a naturally occurring substance found in hair, skin, and nails. Researchers don't exactly know why keratin builds up, but it seems genetics may play a part because it tends to run in families. If your parent or sibling has it, you may develop the condition as well. KP is not infectious, so you cannot catch it or spread it to others. But there are a few things that are suspected to increase a person's risk of having the ailment:

  • Asthma
  • Atopic dermatitis (eczema)
  • Obesity
  • Dry skin

What are the symptoms of keratosis pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris may make your skin look like you have goosebumps, chicken skin, or a slight rash. These small bumps often appear as your skin color but could also look white, red, pink-ish, or brown. The bumps may itch, but they are not painful.

For some, KP appears as dry, chapped, rash-like patches, while others experience just a few flesh-colored bumps. It's commonly found on the thighs, cheeks, upper arms, and buttocks; however, it can develop anywhere on the body.

Is keratosis pilaris hereditary?

It is usually found in more than one member of a family. The way it is inherited varies from family to family, but it often fits into an 'autosomal dominant' pattern; this means that there will be a 1 in 2 chance that each child of an affected parent will inherit the condition.

Why do I have pimples on my arms?

The condition's common. Keratosis pilaris affects 50-80% of adolescents but less than 40% of adults. Most people with rough bumps on their arms don't know they have it OR mistake the rough, red bumps for acne. Keratosis pilaris usually improves during the humid summer months and then gets worse during the winter.

What are the different types of "acne on the arms"?

There are two types and manifestations of keratosis pilaris. Keratosis pilaris alba appears as rough, dry, bumpy skin without irritation. Keratosis pilaris rubra presents as red, inflamed bumps that may look like acne pustules. Keratosis pilaris starts when keratin — a hard protein on the skin—builds up and forms a scaly plug that blocks hair follicles' openings, causing patches of sandpapery skin.

Teen Rough Arm Pimples

What are the best treatment options for keratosis pilaris?

The treatment of keratosis pilaris is tricky. Be wary of harsh cleansers, exfoliators, and scrubs — they will make rough acne bumps on the arms and thighs worse. Keratosis pilaris is most improved with moisture. Always shower with lukewarm water and use a gentle cleanser. Remember to moisturize immediately after the shower when the skin is still humid. Applying a thick lotion or cream will seal in the moisture and prevent keratin build-up.

There is currently no cure for keratosis pilaris. Gradually, the condition clears up on its own, but in the meantime, you may use various products to improve your skin's appearance. It may be weeks or months before you begin to see results, so be patient and continue with the treatment. If moisturizing and other self-care methods don't help, contact your dermatologist about the possibility of prescribing medicated creams.

Salicylic acid

The best treatment creams to fight white, non-irritated keratosis pilaris contain salicylic acid or lactic acid. Salicylic acid and lactic acid are beta hydroxy acids that soften the keratin plugs and smoothens the skin. Salicylic acid is an effective ingredient in treating KP because it helps loosen and remove dead skin cells. It dissolves the blemish-causing keratin plugs and simultaneously moisturizes and softens dry skin. Studies have shown that products that contain salicylic acid are the most beneficial KP products one can get over the counter. Patients with keratosis pilaris experienced significant clearing and marked improvement of symptoms after incorporating salicylic acid into their regular skincare routine.

Benzoyl peroxide

For more severe keratosis pilaris, benzoyl peroxide (BPO) is remarkably efficient in penetrating the skin's pores to loosen the keratin plugs and smooth the appearance of the skin. Benzoyl peroxide is also an anti-bacterial exfoliant that works well to soothe red and inflamed skin, especially on the body.

BPO can also help lighten dark spots on the skin and clear out any breakout-causing bacteria when applied before bed. In more severe cases, when one has red keratosis pilaris on the arms and thighs, the area can be effectively treated with micronized (microparticle) benzoyl peroxide 5%.

This unique form of benzoyl peroxide was specially formulated to penetrate the skin pores better, loosening the keratin plugs and smoothing the skin. Deeper penetration of the microparticles of benzoyl peroxide into the pores means fewer molecules stay on the surface, reducing the risk of redness and dryness.


Moisturizers with niacinamide seem to be one of the best options for treating keratosis pilaris on the cheeks. Niacinamide has been proven to hydrate and protect the skin's natural barrier. It can be used by itself as an active moisturizer and in combination with a low percentage of retinol.

Topical Vitamin A and Retinol

Products derived from Vitamin A support clear skin by promoting a quicker cell turnover rate and preventing clogged hair follicles. Retinol is one best topical retinoids, has been clinically proven to clear pores and stimulate collagen production.

Green tea

We all know green tea is good for your health, but did you know it's great for the skin as well? Green tea has the ability to fight free radicals (molecules produced when your body comes into contact with pollution) thanks to a polyphenol known as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG.) Free radicals can cause significant damage to your cells and lead to several unwanted effects on the body and skin. EGCG has shown to be effective in calming inflammation and fighting against UV damage. Consuming unsweetened green tea and incorporating products derived from green tea leaves (facial masks, sprays, moisturizers, etc.) is a great way to help protect your skin!

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil is made from the leaves of a tea tree, and it has been used as traditional medicine for centuries. Today, people use it in many different ways, including topical treatments for skin conditions.

With its potent anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties, tea tree effectively purifies the skin, helping clear up any irritations to reveal glowing, healthy skin. Using tea tree oil as a topical treatment will give you quick relief from keratosis pilaris. When using this oil, be sure to dilute it before application. A good rule of thumb to use 1 - 2 drops of oils per 12 drops of carrier oil. There are many carrier oils, such as jojoba oil, rosehip oil, or almond oil.

Vitamins A and B5 supplements

It is also hypothesized that KP may be associated with a vitamin A deficiency within the body. To include more vitamin A-rich foods into your diet, introduce things like vitamin A supplements, beef, eggs, oily fish, fortified milk, carrots, chicken, sweet potatoes, and leafy green vegetables in your daily meals.

Pantothenic acid (commonly known as vitamin B5) is crucial for energy production, metabolic function, protein, and fat synthesis, all of which contribute to skin cell regeneration. Additionally, B5 is responsible for the growth and differentiation of keratinocytes that help sustain a healthy skin barrier. When keratinocyte growth is impaired, keratosis pilaris develops. By increasing your pantothenic acid consumption, you are also increasing the amount of glutathione within the cells. Glutathione acts as a powerful antioxidant, getting rid of any toxins and unwanted bacteria.

How to help prevent keratosis pilaris flare-ups?

Living with KP can be frustrating, but there are several things you can do to improve the appearance of your skin and potentially prevent further development of the condition.

Wash your skin gently.

Use warm water and mild soap to treat your skin regularly. Avoid harsh products and soaps with a strong fragrance. Many times, perfumes used in scented cosmetics can dry out the skin. Try to avoid loofahs and other harsh exfoliating scrubs. Exfoliation of the skin will usually lead to more build-up of keratin (hyperkeratosis) and more noticeable keratosis pillars.

Moisturize regularly

After washing the affected area, pat (don't rub) the skin dry. Use a moisturizer within 5 minutes of drying off, preferably while the skin is still damp. Reapply the moisturizer 2-3 times per day.

Invest in a humidifier

Low humidity can dry out the skin. Increasing the humidity of your environment may be effective in the prevention of keratosis pilaris. A portable humidifier may be the perfect solution to adding moisture into the air at home.

What to avoid when you have acne on your arms?

  1. Avoid tight clothing that would rub on your skin.
  2. Shower immediately after exercising to prevent sweat and humidity from clogging your pores.
  3. Avoid perfumed soaps or bathing products that can irritate or dry out your skin.
  4. Never use loofahs, harsh scrubs, or 10% benzoyl washes on your skin. These damage the skin's outer layer, over-dry the skin, and make your "arm acne" worse.
  5. Always shower with cold or lukewarm water. These are better for your skin.
  6. Never scratch, pick or rub your arm or thigh skin – this can leave long-term scars.

To purchase MDacne's body acne and keratosis pilaris night treatment cream, click right here.
To purchase MDacne's soothing face and body moisturizer, click right here.


Keratosis pilaris: a common follicular hyperkeratosis
Treatment of keratosis pilaris and its variants: a systematic review
Keratosis Pilaris and its Subtypes: Associations, New Molecular and Pharmacologic Etiologies, and Therapeutic Options

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