When I was a teenager, I had a major problem with ingrown hairs. I only had to think about shaving my legs, and I’d break out in red bumps from ankle to thigh. My upper arms and elbows were so lumpy and irritated that I always wore long sleeves, even in the heat of Australian summer. I tried to fix these ingrown hairs with exfoliation, but to no avail: all that happened was that my skin got irritated, the bumps got worse, and so I exfoliated harder to try to get rid of them. It was a vicious cycle.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties (and had some lovely scarring on my legs and arms) that my doctor told me that my issue wasn’t ingrown hairs at all: it was a skin condition called keratosis pilaris. For years, I had been scouring my skin trying to fix a problem that I didn’t have.
At least I’m not alone: dermatologists say that keratosis pilaris is one of the most underdiagnosed adult skin conditions. But what is KP? How do you know when you have it? And most importantly, how do you fix it? Read on for everything you need to know about keratosis pilaris.
What is KP?
According to The Mayo Clinic, keratosis pilaris is a skin condition where keratin builds up on skin, forming a hard, scaly “plug” that blocks up the hair follicle. These plugs usually form in groups, which result in the rough “chicken skin” texture that characterizes KP. It can occur anywhere that isn’t the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet, but usually shows up on arms, legs and around the butt. It’s not always cute and can sometimes get itchy, but it isn’t dangerous.
Nobody knows exactly why keratin builds up like this on some people’s skin, but it’s far from uncommon: it’s estimated that around 40% of all adults have keratosis pilaris. KP has a strong genetic component (so it tends to run in families) and can also be associated with other medical conditions (like eczema) or excessively dry weather.
How do I know if I have KP?
Keratosis pilaris can look like many things: small, red bumps that resemble ingrown hairs, raised lumps, discoloured “pinpricks,” a rash on the cheeks, red bumps that resemble acne or white bumps that look like whiteheads. You might not even be able to see it at all—you may just feel patches of uneven, dry or very tough skin.
In other words, KP is very difficult to self-diagnose. It’s far better to see a dermatologist and be sure than try to treat a condition that you don’t have! Learn from my mistakes!
How do I treat it?
If you are a small child, there’s a very good chance that you’ll grow out of this skin condition: 80% of children are estimated to have KP, and that number halves by the time they hit 30. If you’re an adult, however, you’ll probably have it for life—but don’t worry. Though there’s no cure for keratosis pilaris, there are many effective treatment options.
- Creams. Look for anything with alpha-hydroxy acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid or urea in it: these ingredients will chemically exfoliate your skin and prevent that scaly keratin plug from forming. You can buy these over the counter, but they also come in prescription strengths, too. AmLactin Moisturizing Body Lotion ($11) is really fantastic: it not only keeps KP breakouts at bay with its 12% lactic acid formula, it also ensures that your skin is beautifully soft and smooth.
- Retinoids. These miracles of the skincare world are derived from vitamin A and work by promoting cell turnover, thus ensuring that no follicles can be blocked by keratin. These can be pretty hardcore and only your doctor can prescribe them; speak to your doctor about any skin concerns that you may have before you begin treatment.
- Laser treatment. A last-ditch measure; it’s not guaranteed to work, but for the most severe cases of KP, lasers can be used to reduce redness, certain types of scarring and inflammation.
What else can I do?
After many years of trial and error, I can categorically say that there are some other lifestyle changes you can make to ensure your keratosis pilaris stays as under control as possible.
- Be gentle! If you’re using a rough physical exfoliator in an attempt to scrub your skin smooth, stop. The toughest thing you should use on your skin from now on is a wet cotton washcloth; use a chemical exfoliator (like a retinoid or lactic acid cream) to reduce the bumps instead.
- Use a humidifier. Anecdotally, many of the people I know who have KP (myself included) say that their lumps get exponentially worse when the weather is dry. Keeping a small humidifier at your desk at work and a larger one at home helps mitigate this.
- Avoid pore-clogging skincare. Anything comedogenic is out, and yes, that includes coconut oil. If you’re going to try a new moisturizer or serum, test it out under your jaw for a few days before smearing it all over your face. This way, if it does trigger a KP outbreak, it’s in an area that’s not as noticeable. Just a fun hint from your friendly neighborhood beauty editor who tests skincare for a living.
- No hot water. Nothing dries out skin faster than very hot water. Stick to warm showers instead, and always moisturize the second you’ve patted your skin dry.
Everyone’s skin is different, and you may find that your keratosis pilaris responds better to some of these tips than others. For me, no longer scouring my skin, incorporating humidifiers and using 12% lactic acid cream twice a day has been enough to reduce my red bumps to almost zero. I still have keratosis pilaris—that’s never going to go away—but it’s nowhere near as visible as it used to be.
So listen to your doctor, pay attention to your body and you’ll have gorgeous bump-free skin in no time!
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