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What The Heck Are Those Bumps on My Arms?

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You can blame this one on genetics, because they're not from getting too much sun or from using too little cream—it's just DNA. Keratosis pilaris (KP) is the medical name for those annoying-but-harmless, sandpaper-like bumps on the back of your arms. You know, the ones that never go away, despite all the exfoliation in the world. KP is an autosomal dominant condition—like hair color or eye color—so you can thank your parents.

I have it and so does my mom, along with about 50 percent of the world's population. Technically KP is the buildup of keratin, the main protein in skin. This forms a little scaly plug in the follicle, leading to that gritty feel. The same textural changes can also be found on the face, thighs, and buttocks. Most of those affected will have the good fortune of watching it fade by the age 30, but in some cases it lingers indefinitely. KP often gets worse with ambient dryness or hormonal fluctuations, and can even get red when irritated (a condition called keratosis pilaris rubra).

Sadly, without extracting and manipulating genetic code, finding a permanent treatment is tough. That being said, there are definitely ways to make it much better. Here's four: 

1. Keep your skin routine simple.

Overscrubbing or using harsh soaps can inflame the skin, so use a mild cleanser with barrier-protective and skin-moisturizing qualities. The Dove White Beauty Bar is a good choice.

2. Grab an alpha-hydroxy acid.

Glycolic or lactic acid creams, washes, and pads can help to exfoliate the excess keratin, leaving the skin smooth. I'm a fan of Glycolix Pads, as they're easy to use and have saved me many times when sleeveless outfits were in order.

3. Cortisone cream can help in a 9-1-1 situation.

Wedding day? The saying calls for something blue, not red and bumpy. An over-the-counter cortisone cream can constrict blood vessels (decreasing redness) and soften skin. However, overuse (more than two weeks at a time) can thin the skin, so save this treatment for special occasions.

4. Retinols aren't just for wrinkles.

Vitamin A derivatives can regulate the shedding of keratin, so in theory they are a good option for those who have KP. But there's a risk of skin irritation, so I generally recommend mixing it with a hydrating moisturizer. Combine retinol with a pea-size amount of your favorite cream and use just a few times a week.

 

Mona Gohara, MD

Oberlin-bred feminist, Yale-trained dermatologist, mother, Virgo, and lover of all things Broadway, tulle, and 80's. Favorite TV show: the Mindy Project because beauty and brains are a wonderful thing. 

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