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10 ways to tackle rough, bumpy skin on the body

15 Ways to Tackle Your Bumpy Body Skin Fast

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Urgh, under skin bumps- the bane of my upper arms since roughly 30 seconds after puberty hit (as if 13-year-old girls don’t already have enough going on…).

Not quite actual spots- yet not silky smooth skin either- those pesky little bumps can look a little bit like a rash or breakouts that never comes to a head, are frustratingly difficult to get rid of, and can even pop up pretty much anywhere else you definitely don’t want them (like upper thighs, bums or cheeks).

On the plus side, because I’ve had them on and off for over 20 years now, I have some tried and tested ways to get clear them up to virtual non-existence… And I’ve included 15 of those ways to tackle the under-the-skin kind right here.

First up though, what causes these little stinkers in the first place?

Keratosis Pilaris

Under-the-skin bumps are most commonly caused by a common skin condition called Keratosis Pilaris (or KP as it’s also often known).

Different from acne or other body blemishes (more on tackling those further down this post) in that Keratosis Pilaris never comes to a head and is generally skin-coloured, these little bumps are often confused with pimples.

MedicineNet describes Keratosis pilaris as “a very common skin disorder that affects people of all ages. It is a benign condition characterized by numerous small, rough, red, or tan bumps primarily around hair follicles on the upper arms, legs, buttocks, and sometimes cheeks.

“Keratosis pilaris creates a “goose bumps,” “gooseflesh,” or “chicken skin” appearance,” it adds.

They’re actually a build-up of dead skin cells that clog hair follicles.  It is not entirely understood why this happens in some people and not others, but it is thought to be caused by an excessive accumulation of keratin (the main protein skin is made of) around hair follicles and may be hereditary.

The results range from raised bumps to an overall rough texture, skin flushing caused by the dilation of superficial blood vessels, and occasionally a coiled hair trapped underneath a thin layer of skin (particularly annoying).

Not contagious, KP is completely harmless (just slightly irritating). And while there’s no one current way of clearing it up completely, there are plenty of things that I’ve found can help dramatically improve the look of it…

1. BHAs

Or Beta Hydroxy Acids (as any good beauty addict will also know them as) are chemical exfoliants famed for their abilities to break down the glue holding dead skin cells together and get down deep into pores to unclog them.

Most often found in liquid form, BHAs can lift away the dead cells blocking hair follicles and help to both clear up and prevent skin bumps.

Despite being slightly misleadingly named as ‘BHAs’, there is in fact only one BHA commonly used in skincare; salicylic acid, an acid derived from willow bark and other tree bark. Very occasionally, other ingredients like “citric acid is also cited as a BHA in cosmetic formulations,” says the FDA.

Salicylic is the easiest to find though, and has been proven to improve Keratosis Pilaris, so look out for it in any toners, cleansers or moisturisers you plan to use on your bumps.

One of my personal favourites is Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant (happily available from a fairly reasonable £10).  Just put some on a cotton pad and sweep over bumps once or twice a week.

2. Other Actives

While BHAs are particularly effective at unclogging pores, there are several other actives that can help KP.  These include AHAs (think ingredients like glycolic and lactic acid), which work to remove the build-up of dead skin cells, and retinol (otherwise known as vitamin A), which can improve cell turnover.

Another Paula’s Choice favourite of mine is their Skin Smoothing Retinol Body Treatment, a really easily-tolerated, fragrance-free retinol-body cream hybrid that has really helped make my skin softer and more even-toned.

3. Body Brushing

Body Brushing is one of my all-time favourite body care hacks for its abilities to improve pretty much everything from the appearance of cellulite (not scientific but definitely noticeable in my case), to improving circulation, exfoliating and making skin glow.

As an added bonus, since using a body brush (always on dry skin) removes dead skin cells and has a softening effect, it also makes a real difference to my own skin bumps over time.

For a comprehensive guide on how to get started with body brushing, take a look here.

4. Exfoliants

Similar to body brushing, using a manual exfoliant can help to remove dead skin cells.  Since KP skin can also be sensitive though, make sure to be gentle, try to avoid anything heavily-fragranced, and instead stick to formulas that contain separate skincare benefits (like salt, which has some natural anti-bacterial properties).

5. Moisturise

Good old moisturiser rides to the rescue once again; this time helping to soften the rough-feeling Keratosis Pilaris can leave behind, as well as by helping to soothe redness.

Extra beauty points for choosing one with added salicylic acid to exfoliate at the same time.  Cerave’s SA Lotion for Rough & Bumpy Skin is a particularly bargainous favourite.

6. Natural Fibres

Because these bumps are a problem caused by clogged follicles, one of the most common, everyday things that exacerbate them is what you put next to your skin (think tight clothes and synthetic fabrics, which can cause friction).

Instead, I really try to stick to natural, breathable fibres like cotton, linen, wool or silk (racking up some sustainable fashion points at the same time), as well as not-so-skin-tight fits as much as possible.

In fact, this is one of the things that I’ve personally noticed make the biggest difference to my own upper arms- and I definitely see the difference if I go through a week or so of synthetic fabrics.

7. Choose the Right Cleansers

Since drying ingredients can irritate the skin (potentially exacerbating Keratosis Pilaris), this is the time to go gentle here too, with something like Drunk Elephant’s Kamili Cream Body Cleanser.

8. Avoid Hot Water

At the same time, I really try to make sure my shower/bath water is never roasting hot (not sure you can technically roast anything in a bath but what can I say, I love a mixed metaphor), since this can strip skin of its natural oils, causing dryness and irritation.

9. Stay Hydrated

While hot water isn’t a friend to Keratosis Pilaris, hydration is.  That means using a humidifier at home in the colder months or whenever the central heating is going.

10. Go Gently

Since KP can be exacerbated by friction, try not to be over-zealous with the body care, this means I try to go fairly gentle on my skin (incorporating acids or exfoliants just once or twice a week and).

And while I don’t always go fragrance-free in my body care (you’ve got to be able to have some fun, after all), I do tend to use unscented products around half the time to reduce the irritation ingredients like artificial fragrance (mostly labelled as parfum on the list), and some essential oils.

11. Soothing formulas

And if I ever do get to the point where the skin surrounding my bumps has become stressed out or particularly red this is when I like to go back to basics with ingredients scientifically proven to improve hydration and skin barrier function (its ability to keep moisture in and bad stuff out, basically), including hyaluronic acid and glycerin.

12. Be consistent

Since you’re only really treating the symptoms of KP, the bad news is that if you stop tackling your bumps they’re likely to come back (if found this one out the hard way on glorious summer when I thought I’d finally beaten mine only for them to reappear a few months later…sad times).

13. Red LED light

If all skincare measures fail though, and you’re still struggling with bumps and irritation, there are a couple of other options that can work too; and I’ve personally found some daily red LED light reduced the overall redness I had surrounding my bumps.

While there are still question marks over the long-term effectiveness of LED light treatments, it is thought to be able to help reduce redness and inflammation, as well as stimulate collagen.  Either way, when used on my upper arm bumps I can personally see a difference in the surrounding redness.

There are plenty of at-home devices available right now (Cult Beauty has a selection for most budgets), but since there are some risks involved (like potential inflammation and rashes) make sure to go for a device from a retailer or brand you trust, follow the instructions carefully, and stop using immediately if you notice any unexpected skin changes.

As an alternative, find a dermatologist who can carry out the treatment for you (always make sure to take time to do your research and find a doctor who will go through any expected outcomes and risks with you).

14. Lasers

Similarly, certain lasers like IPL (intense pulsed light) have been shown to significantly improve the skin roughness, hyperpigmentation and overall appearance of Keratosis Pilaris.  And some can even help with hair removal at the same time (a beauty twofer).

Again, find your local reputable laser centre and set up an appointment (which can take less than 45 minutes per treatment and around four treatments to see results).

15. Be Patient

But the best news of all? Keratosis Pilaris often clears up on its own by the age of 30- so sometimes all you need to do it just give it some time!

The Takeaway

Body bumps and skin roughness can be quite the bummer (literally), but with a consistent skincare routine and the right ingredients I’ve found they can clear up pretty well over time (and you’d be surprised how many affordable face products come in seriously handy for body care purposes here too).

Having said that, if any breakout is particularly painful, doesn’t seem to respond to treatment, or is otherwise getting you down, I’m a big believer that it’s worth taking the time (and the little extra expense) to talk to a dermatologist, who can often save months of trying over-the-counter products by just heading straight to the prescription ones.

As ever, take your time to find one you trust- ideally on a recommendation from family or friends- and look forward to bump-free skin days ahead!




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Sally Underwood is a journalist, *serious* beauty fan, and Editor-in-Chief of Live That Glow. Formerly Editorial Director of one of Europe's largest newspaper groups, Sally has been a beauty obsessive since her teen years spent dragging her long-suffering (but immaculately-groomed) friends around every beauty counter in London. She now leads Live That Glow's editorial operations.

Expertise: Skincare, Body care
Education: University College London

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