A keratin plug is a type of skin bump that’s essentially one of many types of clogged pores. Unlike acne though, these scaly bumps are seen with skin conditions, especially keratosis pilaris.
Keratin itself is a type of protein found in your hair and skin. Its primary function is to work with other components to bind cells together. In the case of skin, keratin is present in large quantities. Certain types of keratin are found in specific layers of the skin and on certain areas of the body.
Sometimes this protein can clump together with dead skin cells and block or surround the hair follicle. While there’s no one specific known cause, keratin plugs are thought to form due to irritation, genetics, and in association with underlying skin conditions, such as eczema.
Keratin plugs can resolve on their own without treatment, but they can also be persistent and recur. They aren’t contagious, and they aren’t considered to be major medical concerns.
If you’re looking to get rid of stubborn keratin plugs, talk to your dermatologist about the following treatment options.
At first glance, keratin plugs may look like small pimples. They are usually pink or skin-colored. They also tend to form in groups on specific parts of the body.
However, keratin plugs don’t have the noticeable heads that typical pimples might have. Furthermore, the bumps associated with keratosis pilaris can be found in locations where acne is often present, often having a rash-like appearance.
Keratin bumps are rough to the touch because of their scaly plugs. Touching affected skin in keratosis pilaris is often said to feel like sandpaper.
The bumps sometimes look and feel like goosebumps or “chicken skin.” Keratin plugs may also become itchy sometimes.
Keratin plugs seen in keratosis pilaris are most commonly found on upper arms, but they can also be seen on the upper thighs, buttocks, and cheeks, among other areas.
Anyone can experience keratin plugs, but the following risk factors may increase your chances of getting them:
- atopic dermatitis, or eczema
- hay fever
- dry skin
- family history of keratosis pilaris
Keratin plugs don’t usually require medical treatment. However, it’s understandable to want to get rid of them for aesthetic reasons, especially if they’re located in a visible area of your body.
First, it’s important to never pick at, scratch, or attempt to pop keratin plugs. Doing so may only cause irritation.
Talk to your dermatologist about the following removal options:
You can help get rid of dead skin cells that may be trapped with keratin in these bumps by using gentle exfoliation methods.
You can exfoliate with gentle acids, such as peels or topicals with lactic, salicylic, or glycolic acid. Over-the-counter options include Eucerin or Am-Lactin. Physical exfoliants are other options, which include soft facial brushes and washcloths.
If keratin bumps don’t respond to gentle exfoliation, your dermatologist may recommend stronger prescription creams to help dissolve the underlying plugs.
While it may be difficult to prevent keratin plugs entirely, you can help get rid of them and prevent others from occurring by:
- moisturizing your skin regularly
- avoiding tight, restrictive clothing
- using a humidifier in cold, dry weather
- limiting bathing time
- using lukewarm water in showers and baths
- reducing hair removal sessions, such as shaving and waxing, as these can irritate hair follicles over time
There’s more than one way that a pore may become clogged. This is why keratin plugs are sometimes confused with other types of pore plugs, including pimples.
A sebum plug is an infrequently used term for acne. These plugs occur when sebum (oil) from your sebaceous glands become trapped in your hair follicles. Dead skin cells and then inflammation creates acne lesions.
Sebum plugs may come in the form of inflammatory acne, such as pustules and papules. More severe inflammatory acne plugs include cysts and nodules, which are painful bumps that are much larger. Noninflammatory sebum plugs include blackheads and whiteheads.
Acne, whiteheads, and blackheads are found on the face, upper chest, and upper back.
Keratin plugs in keratosis pilaris are commonly on the upper arms, although they can also be in acne areas as well. Furthermore, while sebum plugs may have noticeable heads filled with pus or other debris, keratin plugs tend to be hard and rough along the surface.
Keratin plugs are also sometimes mistaken for blackheads. A blackhead is one type of sebum plug that occurs when your pore is clogged with sebum and dead skin cells. Blackheads are more prominent in acne-prone areas.
When the pore is clogged, a soft plug forms, which can also make your pore more prominent. As the plug is exposed to the surface, it can oxidize, giving a characteristic “blackhead” appearance. Keratin plugs don’t have the dark centers that blackheads do.
As blackheads continue to stretch out your pores, the plugs may also harden. This can make your skin slightly bumpy to the touch. However, blackheads don’t cause the same scale-like appearance and roughness as keratin plugs do.
Keratin plugs can be treated at home. If you’re considering more immediate removal or advice, it’s best to see a dermatologist for advice.
In more severe cases of keratosis pilaris, your dermatologist may recommend microdermabrasion or laser therapy treatments. These are only used when exfoliation, creams, and other remedies don’t work.
Your dermatologist can also help you determine that your bumps are indeed due to keratosis pilaris. With all the possible causes of clogged pores, it can be helpful to get a professional opinion before proceeding with treatment.
Keratin plugs aren’t unusual skin bumps, but they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from acne. These keratin-filled plugs may go away on their own with time and with the use of lifestyle remedies. Never pick at keratin plugs, as this will make them irritated.
If you fail to see results at home, see your dermatologist. They can evaluate your condition and may recommend professional treatments.