*This post about keratosis pilaris has been revised and updated, and is written for informational purposes only. It should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never begin a supplementation protocol without the guidance of your doctor.
Have you ever had…chicken skin?
And when I say “chicken skin,” I DON’T mean the (delicious) kind that actually comes from a chicken.
I mean: have you ever had parts of your skin – for me, it was the backs of my arms – start to look like “chicken skin?”
Reddish, sometimes rough, with a bunch of zit-like (but not quite) bumps?
Word on the internet is that this is called keratosis pilaris (KP, from here on). It’s believed to be harmless, yes, but it’s – well – annoying!
Here’s what we know: KP is caused by dysfunctional keratinization at the hair follicle, meaning that skin cells are either multiplying faster than they’re shedding, or they’re not shedding properly at all. This causes skin cells to build up and stick together over the hair follicle, which then clogs up – much like what happens when you get a zit.
This results in changes to the texture and appearance of the skin.
Remember that old computer game, Lemmings? When they all clumped up at the edge of a cliff and then, one at a time, fell off? Kinda like that.
(Why do I always have to throw in some obscure, dated reference to who knows what? I don’t know.)
At one point, the best advice I could find for KP was: exfoliate more – usually with something like apricot scrub (remember that?) or a stiff, scratchy loofah. And I definitely couldn’t find any information that helped me get to the root of the issue, ie: why was my skin behaving badly in the first place?
I want to correct both of those issues and talk through what you can do externally and internally if KP is frustrating you. I’ll start with some better, less ouchy skincare advice. Then, I’ll talk through my approaches for addressing the root issues at play with KP.
From the outside: improving skin’s texture and appearance
I cringe when I think about what I put my skin through for years: harsh scrubs that were LITERALLY MADE OF CRUSHED NUTSHELLS, picking, squeezing, and rubbing to try to battle it into submission.
Now we know that harsh exfoliation with scrubs or tools can actually make skin irritation worse! And it will never help with KP. The harder you scrub, the more your skin responds by generating more skin cells, making KP worse.
For topical treatment, a much better approach is using a chemical exfoliating formula.
I know, I know – don’t we want to reduce our use of chemicals? Sure, for some things! Just remember: even water is a chemical. Chemicals aren’t always bad! It’s whether what you’re using has a strong safety profile that matters.
Chemical exfoliating formulas are made of skincare acids. In mild, over-the-counter formulations, the safety of these acids is well-established.
Single acids, or combinations of acids in low concentrations, are gentle enough that they won’t irritate the skin – but strong enough to loosen up “sticky” skin cells and dramatically improve the appearance of KP.
Look for products with alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) like lactic acid, which is a gentle surface-level exfoliator, or glycolic acid, which also helps un-stick cells; or salicylic acid, which is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) and the only skincare acid that gets deeper into the pores to clear out blockage. Combination AHA/BHA products are great, too, since they can do a little of everything (the more acids you use at once, however, the more likely you’ll experience some irritation – so start slow and spot test).
Because I’m a Beautycounter consultant, I have uses the AHA/BHA combination Overnight Resurfacing Peel – but, since this article was first published, quite a few combination products have hit the market – even some specific to KP!
From the inside: tackling the root of the problem
Skincare products aside, many specialists say that KP is something most people “grow out of;” but I’ve come to believe that, for many, correcting nutritional and digestive imbalances can help!
Luckily, my KP was one of the first things that improved when I put myself on a comprehensive plan to improve my nutrition and digestion. I’d love to share some details with you!
Here’s my KP checklist.
1) Check in on vitamin A.
Vitamin A plays a major role in keratinization (and in skin health in general). Whenever my KP comes a-creepin’, I check in on my vitamin A status. Am I eating enough vitamin A-rich foods? Am I supporting vitamin A in doing its job by eating complementary nutrients?
Note that when I say vitamin A, I don’t mean beta carotene. Beta carotene is the “plant version” of vitamin A – more accurately, it’s a vitamin A precursor – but, thanks to the FDA allowing beta-carotene to be labeled as vitamin A, the myth that they’re the same persists.
Here’s the bummer: while most people can convert beta carotene to actual vitamin A just fine, that’s not true for everyone. In fact, many folks – including me – have genetic polymorphisms (“mini mutations,” in marginally accurate layman’s terms) that limit their bodies’ ability to convert beta carotene to vitamin A. For this reason, and because my KP improved when I boosted my vitamin A intake, I know that I need real, straight-up vitamin A from my diet.
So where do I get true vitamin A?
*Gulp.* Animal products! Animals are very efficient at converting beta carotene from the plants they eat into vitamin A, and they pass that nutrition along to us.
Egg yolks, full-fat dairy products, seafood, cod liver oil, and liver (double gulp) all contain vitamin A; with the latter two having the highest levels overall.
I found that, at the beginning, a larger “dose” of vitamin A from cod liver oil was just the ticket. I took a half teaspoon a few days each week for a month, then reduced my intake to once every few weeks until the bottle was gone. (Note: I’ve found that if cod liver oil is going to help, you’ll know by the end of the first bottle.) Now, I take it whenever I feel I need an extra boost. I recommend Rosita brand.
From there, smaller amounts from egg yolks and high-quality, full-fat dairy seem to do the trick.
2) check in on the balance between vitamins A, D, and K2.
In addition to vitamin A, I also consider vitamins D and K2, which, according to fascinating research, work with vitamin A in the body.
I like Cod Liver Oil because it’s an easy source of vitamins A and D – especially when we’re in our “Vitamin D Winter” and I can’t get adequate vitamin D from sunshine. Salmon and sardines also provide a food source of vitamin D.
You can find vitamin K2 in small amounts in ghee, which is a concentrated dairy oil; in superfoods like emu oil, according to this company; and in supplements.
3) check in on your digestion.
If you’re getting plenty of good nutrition but are still frustrated with your skin, it might be worth asking: how’s my digestion?
Even the best nutrition can’t do its job if it can’t get where it needs to go.
There’s so much to cover when it comes to digestion – too much for this post, in fact – but consider this to start: our modern lives, modern food, and modern stress can have a profound impact on digestion, from top to bottom (literally).
For nutrients to do their jobs, they have to be properly released from the food matrix, which involves everything from the mouth (chewing) to stomach acid to gall bladder function to intestinal health. There are so many steps in the digestive process, and if even one is out of whack, it can cause you frustration.
Taking supplements can help bypass these issues sometimes, but it won’t do the trick forever. Plus, fortifying your digestion has rewards much greater than just improved skin. It’s worth a look! Working with a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner or Restorative Wellness Practitioner is a wonderful start.
4) Be patient!
Finally, give these strategies time to work! Your skin can become less irritated very quickly, which feels like a big change, but from there, you need several weeks to really see a difference.
And don’t forget to clear any new approach with your trusted healthcare provider! No one approach works for everyone, and it often helps to get the insight of someone who knows your health history personally.
Good luck – and thanks for reading!