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What Can I Do About the Rough Skin on My Arms?

I have these rough little bumps on my upper arms. My doctor says they are something called keratosis pilaris and there's no cure. I'm embarrassed when I wear short-sleeved T-shirts. What should I do?
– Tamsin*

Keratosis pilaris (sometimes called "chicken skin") is a common skin condition. It happens when a protein called keratin plugs the hair follicles, causing white or reddish bumps on the skin. The tiny bumps can feel dry and rough like sandpaper. Keratosis pilaris (pronounced: care-uh-TOE-siss pill-AIR-iss) most often is on the upper arms, thighs, cheeks, and buttocks.

Like acne, keratosis pilaris is a lot more common around puberty. Often, it gets better as a person grows older. It also tends to come and go. It usually gets worse in winter.

Keratosis pilaris is genetic. So if you have it, chances are a family member has it too (or had it when they were younger). It's not an infection, though, and it's not contagious.

Keratosis pilaris is not a health problem. Although it doesn’t hurt or itch, some people feel embarrassed about it. You probably notice it more than other people do.

Here are some things you can try to make keratosis pilaris look better:

  • Use a mild, non-soap cleanser on your upper arms when you shower or bathe.
  • Avoid hot baths or showers.
  • Apply a mild over-the-counter moisturizer several times during the day. Moisturizers containing lactic acid or salicylic acid can help soften bumps and decrease roughness.

If you’re not sure what product to choose, ask your doctor or dermatologist to recommend brands of cleansers or moisturizers that might work for you.

If your skin doesn't get better after following a simple cleansing and moisturizing regimen, talk to your doctor.

*Names have been changed to protect user privacy.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date Reviewed: 01-01-2021

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