What Is Keratosis Pilaris: Acne-like Bumps on the Upper Arm and How To Treat It

Those tiny bumps on your arms or thighs might be caused by a skin condition called keratosis pilaris.

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Do you have tiny red bumps on your upper arms that don't go away no matter how religiously you moisturize? It looks like acne but on your bicep. While bumps on your arms are frustrating any time of year, they're particularly annoying in the winter-to-spring transition when you're swapping your heavy sweaters for light, skin-baring tops. Quite possibly, your bumps are a common skin condition called keratosis pilaris (KP). And, there is a treatment for it.

What Is Keratosis Pilaris (KP)?

Not all bumps on arms are caused by the same culprit. Body acne can appear on the upper arms, as can a condition like:

  • Folliculitis—inflammation of the hair follicles
  • Prurigo nodularis—which causes itchy, crusted bumps
  • Bug bites

More often, though, these little bumps are triggered by keratosis pilaris (KP), which presents as small, rough bumps that may be the color of your skin, red, white, pinkish purple, or brownish-black (on dark skin).

Keratosis pilaris

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"KP is due to plugs of dead skin in the follicles," said Arielle Nagler, MD, a dermatologist with NYU Langone Health in New York City. "It's most commonly found on the upper arms and legs but can also be seen on other areas of the skin."

Keratosis pilaris usually begins either before the age of two or during the teenage years. Although frustrating, KP is completely harmless and not contagious.

The condition appears to run in families, and people with eczema or atopic dermatitis have a higher risk of developing these bumps, said Ava Shamban, MD, a Beverly Hills-based dermatologist and founder of SKINxFIVE. "It's a lifelong condition," added Dr. Shamban.

Treatment Options

Although there's no cure for KP, at-home strategies can help minimize symptoms. To tackle these bumps, Dr. Nagler suggests cleansing with a gentle, non-abrasive soap. We like Cetaphil Ultra Gentle Body Wash, which is fragrance-free and contains soothing ingredients like aloe vera.

Next, exfoliation can help "unplug" those built-up dead skin cells so the bumps can heal. Dr. Shamban recommends looking for products that contain chemical exfoliators such as glycolic acid and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), while Dr. Nagler prefers products with lactic or salicylic acid.

When in doubt, you can't go wrong with anything from DermaDoctor's KP Duty line, a range of products specifically formulated to fight keratosis pilaris. The brand's KP Duty Body Scrub contains glycolic and lactic acids to slough away dead skin right in the shower.

Physical exfoliation can help, too. In a previous interview with Health, New York City-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, recommended a Clarisonic Brush to gently soften skin; unfortunately, Clarisonic went out of business.

You can find amazing alternates that work just as well on Amazon, like this Olay Regenerist Facial Cleansing Brush. For an even more affordable option, try a simple loofah sponge. "My experience has shown me that the best treatment is exfoliating with a loofah," said Dr. Shamban.

After exfoliating, make sure to slather on lotion. "Moisturizing the skin can make KP less noticeable," noted Dr. Nagler. She likes urea creams—our pick is CeraVe Psoriasis Moisturizing Cream—while Dr. Shamban recommends Vanicream Moisturizing Cream, a heavy moisturizer packed with nourishing ingredients to leave skin feeling soft and smooth.

To increase the effectiveness of your moisturizer, do it after every shower or bath and within five minutes of getting out while your skin is still damp. They also suggest 2-3 additional applications of moisturizer throughout the day.

Next Steps

While it may be a lifelong condition, keratosis pilaris improves with age for most people. You may also notice that it's worse in the winter and fades when temperatures rise, said Dr. Nagler—good news for those breaking out their summer tank tops and off-the-shoulder blouses.

If you don't find relief with exfoliation and moisturizing, the AAD states that laser or light treatment, along with microdermabrasion, might help you.

You can also talk to a healthcare provider about your options if home treatments aren't working.

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  1. American Academy of Dermotalogy Association (AAD). Keratosis pilaris: Signs and symptoms.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Keratosis pilaris: Who gets and causes.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Keratosis pilaris: Diagnosis and treatment.

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