If you have small red, rough patches of skin with tiny bumps that never seem to go away, their appearance can be annoying, if not concerning, but they’re actually completely harmless. They’re what’s called keratosis pilaris.
Keratosis pilaris is a condition created by blocked hair follicles from dead skin. Keratin, a protein produced by the skin that’s meant to protect your skin from the outside world is the one creating the blockage. When there’s an overproduction of keratin, it traps the hair follicle and forms a tiny red bump in its place. Some even refer to the condition as chicken skin. You’re more likely to develop these small red bumps if you have eczema, generally dry skin, dead skin buildup (ichthyosis), allergies, hay fever, or asthma.
Other symptoms of keratosis pilaris include:
While you can sometimes find these small red bumps on your legs too, you’re most likely to find these tiny bumps on arms. It’s most common among people under 30 and those who are pregnant, so don’t think this is something you’re going to have to suffer through your whole life, you’ll likely grow out of it with age. In the meantime though, there are a few things you can do to decrease redness and get rid of these bumps.
Parsley Health frequently works with members who deal with a range of skin issues, whether that be eczema, acne, or even keratosis pilaris. Though keratosis pilaris is completely harmless, if you’re looking to resolve the small red bumps on your arms our doctors and health coaches can work with you to make small lifestyle changes that could get rid of them for good. Here are some of their most commonly recommended interventions.
The heat from a warm bath or long shower can help open up hair follicles and pores and allow trapped dead cells to surface, clearing out any blockage. If baths aren’t your thing, you can also try a steam room or shower (just make sure you shower and cleanse after).
Gently exfoliating the area that’s prone to red bumps, one to two times a week can increase the turnover of dead skin cells and help you remove those red itchy bumps.You’ll also probably see as a result from the exfoliation, other skin conditions that you hadn’t paid special attention to before clear up, like ingrown hairs. Similar to the red bumps on arms, these are prone to forming on the underarm and thighs. Just don’t go overboard on harshness or frequency, which could worsen the condition.
Now that you’ve exfoliated, your skin is ready to take in moisture. Moisturizing daily is key to keeping your skin hydrated, even on days when you don’t exfoliate. Red spots and bumps are irritated even further by lack of hydration and red blotchy patches can form as a result, so don’t skimp on moisturizing as part of your skincare routine. Opt for a non-toxic, cream that’s ultra-hydrating. If you’re not worried about oiliness, you can even turn to your pantry and slather on some coconut oil.
Keratosis pilaris can be more common in people with extremely dry skin, so hydration can help here too. Your skin is actually made up of 64 percent water, so taking in water internally can visibly improve the external quality of your skin’s hydration. We recommend a minimum of 2.7 liters of water a day for women and 3.7 liters for men.
Keratosis pilaris is thought to be a non-inflammatory condition, but at Parsley Health, we’ve had some cases where members are able to completely resolve their bumps on upper arms by removing foods from their diet that they’re sensitive to. Common trigger foods known for their inflammatory effects include eggs, dairy, and wheat. If you’re not seeing results after an elimination diet, it may also be worth asking your doctor about food intolerance testing. If no trigger foods are found, you can be certain that your keratosis pilaris is not caused by your diet.
If you notice that your keratosis pilaris is itchier or more uncomfortable after sitting around in your workout clothes, you’re not crazy. Particularly when you have a flare-up, the friction caused by tight clothing could be making your little red bumps worse. Opting for a loose, flowy shirt and shorts during times when your skin is especially dry and itchy will feel a lot better.
Not only is keratosis pilaris more common during dry times of year, but any dry environment could be allowing your tiny red bumps to thrive. If your house or bedroom has particularly low humidity, especially in the winter months, investing in a humidifier could do wonders for your skin. Humidifiers will add moisture to the air, allowing it to keep its moisture and preventing itchy flare-ups.
If none of these things seem to be helping, it may be worthwhile to contact your doctor for a second look. There are many skin conditions—think eczema, psoriasis, even allergic reactions—that can produce similar rashes, so confirming with your doctor that keratosis pilaris is what’s at play can be important to ensuring that your efforts don’t go to waste.
Dr. Robin Berzin is the Founder and CEO of Parsley Health, America's leading holistic medical practice designed to help women overcome chronic conditions. She founded Parsley to address the rising tide of chronic disease in America through personalized holistic medicine that puts food, lifestyle, and proactive diagnostic testing on the prescription pad next to medications. Since founding Parsley in 2016, Dr. Berzin has seen 80% of patients improve or resolve their chronic conditions within their first year of care, demonstrating the life-changing value of making modern holistic medicine accessible to everyone, anywhere. Parsley is available online nationwide.
Dr. Berzin attended medical school at Columbia University and trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Her book, Prescription for Happiness: How to Eat, Move, and Supplement for Peak Mental Health, was published by Simon Element in January 2022.