Keratosis pilaris, or “chicken skin,” is a common and harmless condition due to excess keratin in the hair follicles. It causes small, rough bumps to appear on the skin’s surface.

People may refer to keratosis pilaris as chicken skin, as the small bumps can look similar to the skin of a plucked chicken.

This article discusses the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, and outlook for keratosis pilaris.

The main symptom of keratosis pilaris is small, rough, dry bumps on the skin, which may give the skin a sandpaper-like texture and look like goosebumps or a rash.

The bumps may:

  • vary in color for each person and may be flesh-colored, white, brown-black, red, or pink-purple
  • be more noticeable in certain climates, including winter or dry climates
  • itch, but rarely hurt

Keratosis pilaris can appear anywhere on the body where there are hair follicles — it will not appear on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hands.

The most common areas for keratosis pilaris to appear are:

  • in children, the upper arms, front of the thighs, and the cheeks
  • in adolescents and adults, the upper arms, front of the thighs, and the buttocks

Some people may also have bumps on the forearms and lower legs.

Keratosis pilaris occurs due to an abnormal buildup of keratin in hair follicles. Keratin is a protein that supports the typical development of hair, nails, and skin.

The excess keratin blocks the hair follicles and builds up, leading to small bumps forming on the skin.

Researchers are unclear on the underlying cause of keratosis pilaris. It may occur due to certain genetic mutations with filaggrin, an important protein for skin barrier function. The condition also commonly occurs with atopic dermatitis.

Keratosis pilaris is also more apparent in winter, possibly due to less moisture in the air.

People with the following risk factors may be more likely to develop keratosis pilaris:

To diagnose keratosis pilaris, a doctor will take a medical history and physically examine the skin.

A doctor may use a dermatoscope to examine the skin more closely. A dermatoscope is a handheld device that magnifies the skin to allow examination of the hair follicles and papules in greater detail.

A doctor will not usually need to perform any further tests. If they need to confirm the diagnosis, they may use a punch biopsy, which takes a small sample of skin tissue to examine under a microscope.

Learn whether Medicare covers dermatology.

It is not necessary to treat keratosis pilaris, but if people want to minimize dryness, itching, or the appearance of the condition, topical treatments may help.

People can apply a moisturizer after bathing and throughout the day to help prevent dry skin. A person can look for moisturizers that contain lactic acid or urea.

If standard moisturizers are ineffective, people can use a medicated cream containing alpha hydroxy acid (AHA).

Keratolytics may help reduce a buildup of dead skin cells, and people can look for products containing any of the following ingredients:

In some cases, topical corticosteroids may help soften the bumps and reduce discoloration. If moisturizers and medications are ineffective, laser treatment may help.

Learn about treating keratosis pilaris on the face.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends people can treat keratosis pilaris at home by:

  • exfoliating the skin gently with a rough washcloth or loofah, which removes dead skin cells from the surface, but avoiding scrubbing the skin
  • applying a chemical exfoliator or keratolytic to help remove a buildup of dead skin cells
  • applying an oil-free moisturizer afterward to prevent the skin from becoming dry, and doing this at least 2–3 times throughout the day

People can follow these steps daily until their skin clears up. There is no cure for keratosis pilaris, so people may need to use home treatments a few times each week to maintain results.

Learn how to get glowing skin.

People may be able to prevent flareups by:

  • avoiding dry skin by applying a thick, oil-free ointment or cream on damp skin after bathing and whenever the skin feels dry
  • trying laser hair removal rather than shaving or waxing, which may aggravate the condition
  • taking short showers or baths no more than once a day to help prevent drying out the skin, and use warm water rather than hot
  • using a mild cleanser rather than soap to prevent drying the skin
  • using a humidifier to add more moisture to dry air
  • avoiding using self-tan, as this may make the bumps appear more noticeable

Read about skin myths.

According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, keratosis pilaris may last years but usually disappear by age 30.

Keratosis pilaris may affect the appearance of the skin, but it is a harmless condition and will not usually hurt or itch.

There is no cure for keratosis pilaris, but topical treatments and home remedies may help reduce the appearance of the bumps.

Keratosis pilaris is a common skin condition that causes small, rough bumps on the skin’s surface. It usually appears on the upper arms or thighs. Keratosis pilaris is a harmless and painless condition.

Treatments may help reduce the appearance of keratosis pilaris. Moisturizers and exfoliants may help reduce dryness and clear a buildup of dead skin cells. In many cases, keratosis pilaris will disappear over time.