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What are the Different Keratosis Pilaris Treatments?

By Deborah Walker
Updated: May 17, 2024

Keratosis pilaris (KP) is an inherited skin condition common among people of Scandanavian descent. It consists of small red or white bumps and rough patches of skin usually on the back of the arms, thighs, and/or buttocks. Although it is not a life-threatening condition, treatment may be frustrating because none of the keratosis pilaris remedies work for everyone. Topical exfoliants, topical corticosteroids, topical retinoids, and sulfur soaps are all potential keratosis pilaris treatments. Self-help measures may also help improve the appearance of skin. The effectiveness of treatment depends, in large part, on the consistency with which it is used.

This skin condition is caused by excess production of the keratin protein. The excess keratin surrounds the hair follicles, traps them in the pores, and causes a hard plug to form. The bumps are seldom itchy or sore, but picking at them may cause reddening, bleeding, and infection. Most of the time, KP disappears by age 30.

Topical exfoliants are among the different keratosis pilaris treatments that may help remove the dead, hardened layer of skin blocking the hair follicle. Low-strength medicated creams containing salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy, or lactic acid are available over the counter. More potent medicated creams require a doctor's prescription in most jurisdictions. Redness, skin irritation, or stinging may result from the use of topical exfoliants.

Topical corticosteroids are anti-inflammatories that suppress the immune system and decrease cell turnover. Hydrocortisone is one example of a low-strength corticosteroid ointment that may be useful for sensitive skin or skin with large patches of KP. Higher strength topical corticosteroids such as triamcinolone may be prescribed by a doctor for short-term use. Long-term use is not recommended because corticosteroids may thin the skin. Burning, itching, or other skin irritation may occur with the use of topical corticosteroids.

Another of the keratosis pilaris treatments are topical retinoids. Retinoids increase cell turnover and help prevent plugging of the hair follicle. Tretinoin and tazarotene are topical retinoids that require a prescription. Some people experience severe dryness, peeling, and redness of the skin when they use topical retinoids.

Ancient societies used sulfur to treat skin conditions. Today, sulfur soap, lotion, and/or exfoliation creams may be purchased over the counter to treat KP. Side effects may include increased skin redness and/or extreme dryness.

Although it may be tempting to scrub one's skin aggressively or attempt to remove the plugs, doing so may make KP worse. Skin should be gently cleaned and patted, not rubbed, dry. Some water should remain on the skin. After bathing, a urea- or propylene glycol-based moisturizer may be applied to damp skin. A humidifier provides might help improve the condition. No matter which keratosis pilaris treatments are selected, for best results use them with consistency and as the doctor recommends.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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