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Southern Cross Medical Library

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Keratosis pilaris

Keratosis pilaris is a common and harmless skin condition characterised by the development of numerous small, rough bumps on the skin. Treatment to control or minimise symptoms may involve a range of skin care therapies.

The condition can occur anywhere from infancy into adulthood but is most prevalent during teenage years (affecting 50-80% of adolescents).  Keratosis pilaris occurs more commonly in the following groups:  

  • Females
  • People who are overweight
  • People of Celtic origin
  • People who have eczema and/or dry skin.
Keratosis pilaris is not connected to any serious disease or ill health and for most sufferers the condition subsides in adulthood.  The exact cause of keratosis pilaris is unknown but a genetic origin is likely as it has a tendency to run in families (30-50% of those affected will have a family history of the condition).  

Signs and symptoms

Keratosis pilaris causes numerous small bumps about the size of a grain of sand. These feel rough and look like permanent goosebumps. The bumps may be skin coloured, red or brown. Often a small coiled hair is noticeable within the bump.  The outer aspect of the upper arm is the area most commonly affected by the condition but it can also affect the thighs, face and buttocks and, less commonly, the forearms and upper back.

Keratosis pilaris is thought to be a disorder of the keratin cells (the sticky cells that line the hair follicle). Instead of exfoliating, or shedding, these cells build up around the hair follicle.  The condition is usually more severe in winter and during periods of low humidity.  


There is no cure for keratosis pilaris but it can be effectively controlled. Many people achieve very good temporary improvement by following a regular skin care programme but treatment needs to be ongoing and usually requires a combination of therapies. Treatment options include:  

  • Moisturising creams to soften the skin - creams that contain urea, salicylic acid and alphahydroxy acids may be most effective
  • Prescription creams or gels containing retinoids. However, these are not suitable for young children and pregnant women
  • Pulse dye laser or intense pulsed light - this may reduce the redness but not the roughness
  • Laser assisted hair removal
  • Exfoliating with pumice stone or a loofah
  • Using non-soap cleansers.


Oakley, A. DermNet NZ (2011) Keratosis Pilaris. New Zealand Dermatological Society Inc., S. C. (2006) Keratosis Pilaris. The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Third Edition. Jacqueline. L. Longe, Editor. Farmington Hills, MI. Thomson Gale.
Nili, N.A. (2012). Keratosis Pilaris. Medscape Reference: Drugs, Diseases & Procedures. WebMD LLC.  
O'Toole, M.T. (Ed.) (2013) Mosby's Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professionals (9th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier Mosby.
Last Reviewed – 26 April 2013
Go to our Medical Library Index Page to find information on other medical conditions.