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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 fairly common skin condition. It’s a hardening of a tiny area of the skin around hair follicles that causes small scattered, sometimes reddish bumps on the skin. Keratosis pilaris usually happens on the arms and thighs.

Like acne, keratosis pilaris is a lot more common around puberty, with half or more of all teens affected. Often, it goes away as a person grows older. It also tends to come and go — for example, someone might notice it more in winter than in summer.

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

Keratosis pilaris has no effect on health. It doesn’t hurt and usually doesn’t itch. Although it’s not uncomfortable, some people do feel embarrassed about it. It’s very likely that you notice the condition a lot more than other people do, though.

There may be no cure for keratosis pilaris, but you can try several things to make it look better:

  • Use a mild, non-soap cleanser on your upper arms when you shower or bathe.
  • Apply a mild over-the-counter moisturizer several times during the day. Some doctors suggest trying moisturizers containing lactic acid.

Because everybody’s case is different, you may need to experiment with several different products to find one that works for you. Just be sure to choose gentle products if you’re trying things out on your own. Or ask your doctor or dermatologist to recommend brands of cleansers or moisturizers that might work for you.

If it doesn’t help to follow a simple cleansing and moisturizing regimen, talk to your doctor.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2011

*Names have been changed to protect user privacy.