I am twenty-three years into a battle against Keratosis Pilaris. For those who don’t know, KP is a super common skin condition involving little bumps on the skin caused by a buildup of keratin. (This is really gross, but sometimes you can pop KP bumps just like zits – that’s how much keratin we’re talking.) Usually it’s on the arms and legs, but it can appear anywhere except the palms. Some people’s KP appears quite red and inflamed. Some people have it on only some parts of their arms and legs and some people get it only seasonally. I am one of the super lucky people who has it all over my arms and legs all year round. Mine usually isn’t particularly red – the bumps themselves are obviously pink, but the skin around them doesn’t get inflamed. During the winter when my skin is very dry it can be more noticeably red, but the above picture is a good representation of how it normally appears.
KP is not painful (just itchy sometimes, when it’s really dry) and it isn’t indicative of any sort of serious medical condition. It’s literally just my stupid skin producing too much keratin. It’s totally genetic – my mom has had it for her whole life and I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. Apparently it’s common for it to spontaneously improve by about age 30, but I’m not holding out much hope. Mine has pretty much stayed the same throughout my life, and since my mom has had hers forever I assume mine will be much the same. It’s actually kind of nice that I have her to look to, because it means I’m not wasting any time waiting for my KP to clear up in the next few years.
KP used to be something I was pretty self-conscious about – in a world that pushes absolute smoothness as the pinnacle of leg beauty, I will never achieve that. But when I was a teenager I looked into KP and realized how prevalent it is – it’s seen in approximately 30-50% of the adult population. You’d never know that, though, because the arms and legs we see in ads and on TV are always nice and smooth, blurred and Photoshopped to perfection. I’ve talked to so many people who are really self-conscious about their KP. It seems nonsensical to me that so many of us have insecurities about something that is incredibly prevalent. Gradually I began to notice just how many people have it, and I stopped caring as much. (Like, a few weeks ago I was with a group of eight people and I could see that at least three of them had it…) A good amount of people I pass on the street deal with the exact same thing, and those who don’t have definitely seen KP skin before and will not be shocked when confronted with my arms. I don’t really care about it from an aesthetic standpoint anymore; I wear shorts in the summer with absolutely zero thought about my KP. I mean, if I woke up with nice smooth legs I wouldn’t be mad, but I’ve long since accepted that I have visible bumps all over my arms and legs.
Really the concern for me is managing how dry and itchy my KP can make my skin. I don’t think that having super dry skin is necessarily an inborn feature of KP – I’m just lucky enough to have year-round KP all over my arms and legs and the driest skin in the world. Like I cannot overstate how dry my arms and legs are at all times. The dryness totally exacerbates the KP and makes it uncomfortable instead of just a bit ugly.
Now, if you have KP you have no doubt furiously Googled cures for it. You have probably read many stories about people curing theirs. I don’t doubt that that’s possible – but I really think that some of us just have lifelong cases that can never be fully cured. However, it can be managed and mitigated. The frustrating thing is that not everything works for everybody. Care of KP-ravaged skin seems to be very much in the “your mileage may vary” category – so what works for me may not work for you. Regardless, here’s what helps keep mine at bay.
No surprise – moisture is the most important factor for me. This is primarily about feeling (since dry skin is way more likely to feel itchy and scaly), but I do think it makes a visible difference as well. The added shine of body cream makes the skin look smoother and more uniform than it actually is.
So, I basically take moisture wherever I can get it. Thick body creams are obviously the primary moisture vehicle, but I’m also a big fan of using shower oils instead of shaving cream in order to really maintain the moisture of my skin. There are a lot of shaving creams on the market that claim to be moisturizing, but I’ve never found them to do anything for me. Oils are where it’s at! I really like the L’Occitane Almond Shower Oil, but La Roche-Posay and Bioderma both make more budget-friendly versions.
I absolutely love The Body Shop’s Coconut Body Butter – because of the coconut oil it has a semi-solid consistency that my skin responds to well. I’ve heard of a lot of people who found that coconut oil actually completely cleared up their KP. I can confidently say that is not true for me (and yes, I have tried pure coconut oil as well), but I do think it helps. Otherwise, I absolutely love the A-Derma Exomega Emollient Balm. It’s not a very thick cream at all, but it delivers so much rich hydration and I’m always amazed at how (relatively) smooth my skin feels after I use it. La Roche-Posay Lipikar Baume AP+ has a similar effect, but A-Derma edges it out just slightly for me.
Body oils work really well for me, too, and sometimes I’ll layer them. I’ve used argan and rosehip as well as squalane and they’ve all worked really nicely. They don’t have to be fancy or expensive: $6 bottles from The Ordinary work well, so do off-brand oils from Winners. I just recommend applying body oils in the bathroom and waiting a few minutes for them to sink in, because they can get a bit messy.
I will note for posterity that the best body cream I ever found for KP was by long-dead Canadian brand Dermaglow. Me and my mom were both obsessed with it because it actually seemed to make a huge difference in clearing up our skin. But the brand went under years ago and we just haven’t found anything as good. Part of me is still hoping for a resurrection even though it’s been the better part of a decade.
Exfoliation is my second weapon against KP. This is another pretty obvious one – when you’ve got bumpy, textured skin, exfoliation is a good way to smooth things out. It helps to unclog the keratin-filled hair follicles and can slough off any flaky, dry patches. I use a body scrub every time I shower. Currently I’m using one from The Body Shop (obviously purchased during a promotion…), but usually I use whatever is cheap and cheerful from the drugstore since at the end of the day they’re all just sugar scrubs.
I also use chemical exfoliants about once a week. I’ve found that glycolic acid works best for me. There are a lot of body creams with 5% or 8% glycolic (and, indeed, the Dermaglow cream I mourn had 8%), but sometimes they don’t quite pack in the amount of moisture I want. I prefer to separate out those functions so I can get exactly what I want. I use glycolic acid on my face every day, so I just use whatever I have open at the time. Currently it’s by Vichy, but I’ve also used NeoStrata and The Ordinary with the same results.
I don’t overdo the chemical exfoliation because I really don’t want to dry out my arms and legs. It’s just a nice weekly treatment to help speed things along.
This is a bit of a controversial one, since some sources say that exposure to sunlight actually worsens KP. In general I would agree that sun exposure worsens most skin conditions, and it seems logical that sunlight would darken KP bumps. But my actual life experience begs to differ! I am all for sun protection and I don’t think anybody should be roasting out in the sun for hours a day to improve their KP. But my skin is never better than immediately after a cottage vacation where I’m outside all day. Look, I’m not the only one! This obviously isn’t a long-term fix or anything… but I had to mention it since it’s 100% the thing that makes the most difference. (My mom has had this experience too, so there are at least three of us!)
Things I haven’t tried
I’ve never used a steroid cream on my KP (though I’d be open to trying it). I’ve also never had laser treatment – that was something I used to long for, but the expense just doesn’t seem worth it to me anymore. If I’m going to get something lasered it’s going to be my eyeballs because I am too vain for glasses and too lazy for contacts (except for special occasions). And I haven’t tried making any dietary changes. It’s not that I don’t believe that might make a difference, it’s just that making noticeable lifestyle changes for the sake of something that I’m not even that insecure about anymore seems like an unbalanced tradeoff. Like, I can commit to three minutes a day putting on body lotion. Cutting out food I like eating long-term? Nah. It’s just not that important to me!
The unfortunate thing about all of these solutions is that progress is dependent on absolute rigid consistency. I can improve the look and feel of my KP as long as I’m vigilant about treating it. If I stop, I go right back to square one. I think that’s true for those who “cure” theirs, too – stop with the coconut oil or start eating dairy again and your perfectly smooth legs vanish. (Wait… you still have legs. They’re just not smooth.) I try to build these things into my regular routines, but sometimes it’s just not going to happen. When I’m travelling, stressed, or busy, these things fall by the wayside – it’s never a linear path. KP is never going to be my top priority, and that’s not only okay, it’s healthy. Some bumps on my skin should not be taking up that much mental energy when I can be focusing on school, my relationships with my friends and family, my hobbies, my health, learning new things, travelling… Obviously, when it comes to things we’re insecure about, that’s easier said than done. But it’s all about perspective, and some less-than-beautiful bumps on my arms and legs are so much less important than basically everything else going on in my life.