Keratosis pilaris is a common skin condition that looks like small goose bumps, which are actually dead skin cells that build up around the hair follicle.
Keratosis pilaris is a disorder that occurs around the hair follicles of the upper arms, thighs, and sometimes the buttocks. It presents as small, benign bumps or papules that are actually waxy build-ups of keratin. Normally skin sloughs off. However, around the hair follicle where the papules form, the keratinized skin cells slough off at a slower rate, clogging the follicles.
This is generally thought to be a genetic disorder, although the symptoms of keratosis pilaris are often seen with ichthyosis and allergic dermatitis. It can also be observed in people of all ages who have either inherited it, have a vitamin A deficiency or have dry skin. Keratosis pilaris is a self-limiting disorder that disappears as the person ages. It can become more severe when conditions are dry such as during the winter months or in dry climates.
Causes and symptoms
The specific causes of this disorder are unknown. Since this disorder runs in families, it is thought to be hereditary. Keratosis pilaris is not a serious disorder and is not contagious.
The symptoms of keratosis pilaris are based on the development of small white papules the size of a grain of sand on the upper arms, thighs, and occasionally the buttocks and face. The papules occur around a hair follicle and are firm and white. They feel a little like coarse sandpaper, but they are not painful and there usually is no itching associated with them. They are easily removed and the material inside the papule usually contains a small, coiled hair.
A dermatologist or a general practicioner can easily diagnose this disorder. A physical examination is all that is necessary to diagnose keratosis pilaris. Special tests are not needed.
To treat keratosis pilaris patients can try several strategies to lessen the bumps. First, the patient can supplement the natural removal of dry skin and papules by using a loofah or another type of scrub when showering or bathing. A variety of different over-the-counter (OTC) lotions, ointments, and creams can also be applied after showering while the skin is still moist and then several times a day to keep the area moist. Medicated lotions with urea, 15% alphahydroxy acids, or Retin A can also be prescribed by the dermatologist and applied one to two times daily. Systemic (oral) medications are not prescribed for keratosis pilaris. However if papules are opened and become infected, antibiotics may be necessary to treat the infection.
Unfortunately, the treatment for keratosis pilaris is often disappointing. Although extreme cases of keratosis pilaris can occasionally be unsightly, the disorder is not life threatening and usually begins to disappear as the patient ages.
Since keratosis pilaris is thought to be a genetic disorder and is observed in several members of the same family, there is nothing that can be done to prevent this disorder. Following the treatment advice above can alleviate the outward characteristics of keratosis pilaris.
Sally C. McFarlane-Parrott
Dermatologist—A physician that specializes in diseases and disorders of the skin.
Ichthyosis—A group of congenital disorders of keratinization characterized by dryness and scaling of the skin.
Keratin—The hard, waxy material that is made by the outer layer of skin cells.