Pimples on the Back of Arms? Here’s What You Need to Know About Keratosis Pilaris

Keratosis pilaris arm in front of strawberry background

Feeling rough? If you’re noticing small pimples on the back of your arms, you might be dealing with a skin condition called keratosis pilaris (KP). While the appearance of small pimples or red bumps on the arms or other areas might make you think it’s body acne, these bumps are caused by keratin plugs, not sebum plugs, and they’re a common skin variation.

What is Keratosis Pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris (KP) is a harmless condition where small bumps show up on the skin, often on your upper arms, thighs, and butt, but KP can affect other areas of the body as well. These pimples on the arm are usually the same color as the skin or slightly reddish. They are caused by a buildup of keratin, a protein that helps protect your skin, but in this case, it can clog up your hair follicles, creating these annoying bumps. It is a common skin condition with over half of teenagers and 40% of adults affected. KP can be more noticeable when your skin is dry, which is why it often gets worse during winter months. 

The rough, uneven texture of KP is sometimes compared to the skin of a plucked chicken or the surface of a strawberry, which is why it is sometimes called “chicken skin” or “strawberry skin.” While the little red spots on the arm associated with KP are typically painless, they may cause itching or discomfort in some cases. The good news? It’s nothing to worry about health-wise, even if it’s a bit annoying when you want to go sleeveless. 

Keratosis pilaris is pretty easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. Here’s what to keep an eye out for:

  • Bumpy Skin: Those classic small, rough bumps that look like goosebumps or chicken skin.
  • Redness: Sometimes the bumps can be a bit red or inflamed, especially if you’ve been scratching or rubbing them.
  • Dryness: The skin around the bumps might feel dry or rough to the touch.
  • Location: KP usually shows up on the upper arms, thighs, cheeks, butt, and sometimes on the lower arms.

What Causes Keratosis Pilaris?

KP is caused by an overproduction of keratin, leading to the excess of this protein blocking the opening of its follicle, leading to bumps. The exact cause of keratosis pilaris is unknown, but it is not contagious, nor is it due to poor hygiene. It is often seen in children and teenagers and can improve with age.

Several factors are believed to contribute to its development:

  • Genetics: Keratosis pilaris tends to run in families, indicating a genetic predisposition to the condition. If your parents had KP, chances are you might too. 
  • Dry Skin: People with dry skin are more prone to developing KP, as dryness can exacerbate the blockage of hair follicles.
  • Other Skin Conditions: If you have a skin condition such as eczema (atopic dermatitis) you are more likely to develop keratosis pilaris. These conditions can exacerbate KP symptoms and may require additional treatment.
  • Hormonal Changes: Hormonal changes, especially during puberty or pregnancy, can trigger or worsen KP. 
  • Environment: Cold, dry weather can make keratosis pilaris more noticeable, while humid climates may improve the condition. Another reason to dream of a tropical vacation!

Treatment for Keratosis Pilaris

While KP is harmless and often resolves on its own with age, there are plenty of ways to manage it and keep your skin looking and feeling better in the meantime. Treatments focus on exfoliating the affected areas to remove dead skin cells and unclog hair follicles, as well as moisturizing the skin to help soften and smooth its texture.

@dr.mamina

Keratosis pilaris aka KP aka strawberry skin aka chicken skin is actually a form of dry skin and is treated with gentle exfoliating products and lots of moisturizer @amlactinofficial @DERMAdoctor @First Aid Beauty @Skinfix @Skin Medicinals #keratosispilaris #lacticacid #urea #glycolicacid #dermatologist #skincareproducts #exfoliation #moisturizer #glowingskin #skincareroutine #skincaretips #KP #strawberryskin

♬ original sound – Dr. Mamina Turegano, MD

Here are some common treatment options to improve the appearance of your KP:

Chemical Exfoliation

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are commonly used to exfoliate the skin and remove dead skin cells, helping to unclog hair follicles and smooth the skin’s texture. Products containing ingredients such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, or salicylic acid can be applied to the affected areas to help improve KP symptoms. You can find these acids in a body wash to use in the shower or as a liquid or lotion to apply to affected areas after you get out.

Physical Exfoliation

In addition to chemical exfoliants, physical exfoliation can also help smooth the skin’s texture and do wonders for KP. Use a gentle scrub or exfoliating mitt to massage the affected areas after your skin softens from water in the shower. Doing this on a regular basis can help remove dead skin cells and prevent the buildup of keratin. However, it’s essential to avoid scrubbing too aggressively or too often, as this can irritate the skin and worsen KP symptoms. Some scrubs geared towards getting rid of KP also include chemical exfoliants to do double duty.

Topical Retinoids

Retinoids, derived from vitamin A, are another effective treatment option for keratosis pilaris. These topical medications work by promoting cell turnover and preventing the buildup of keratin around hair follicles. Over time, retinoids can help reduce the appearance of bumps and improve the overall texture of the skin.

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Moisturize

Keeping the skin well-hydrated is essential for managing keratosis pilaris, as dry skin can exacerbate KP symptoms. Using a moisturizing body wash and following it up immediately while skin is still damp with body lotion can help hydrate the skin and improve its overall texture.

Hair Removal

Since KP is caused by keratin blocking hair follicles, reducing the presence of hair can help minimize this buildup. Methods like laser hair removal or electrolysis done by professionals can target the hair follicles directly and reduce hair growth. 

At-home IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) devices are a popular option for hair removal, but they aren’t suitable for everyone. IPL devices work best if you have light to medium skin and dark hair, as the technology relies on the contrast between the pigment in the hair and the pigment in the skin to target the hair. People with darker skin tones could risk skin damage, while those with blonde, red, gray, or white hair might find IPL less effective. Just remember to consult with a dermatologist to ensure that hair removal is appropriate for your skin type and to avoid any potential irritation. 

Lifestyle Changes

Making simple changes can also help manage KP. Using a humidifier in dry environments can help keep skin hydrated, and avoiding hot, long showers or baths and using mild, fragrance-free cleansers can also help your skin.

Prescription Medications

If over-the-counter products aren’t cutting it, a visit to a dermatologist for treatment may be necessary. They may prescribe you topical retinoids, topical corticosteroids, Accutane, or other medications to help manage underlying skin conditions. You may also want to visit a dermatologist if you suspect KP is on your face and you need help distinguishing it from acne.

Laser Treatment

For more persistent cases, or when skin appearance is a significant concern, laser therapy can be an option. Dermatologists may recommend laser treatments to reduce redness and improve the skin’s texture, though multiple sessions may be needed for optimal results. This option is typically considered when other treatments have not worked. 


Life with keratosis pilaris can be a bit of a bumpy ride, but these small pimples on the back of arms are harmless and can often be managed with the right skincare treatments. You’ll smooth things out in no time!

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