Body Blemishes vs. Keratosis Pilaris: How to Tell the Difference

We’ve all had body bumps — but when they keep cropping up, how do we decide how to treat them? Trying to discern between common concerns like blemishes or keratosis pilaris (aka “chicken skin”) can be confusing. Read on for tips on how to determine the difference between these two conditions — and the best way to deal with them.

Body blemishes vs. keratosis pilaris on a woman's arm

What does keratosis pilaris look like?

This condition is sometimes called chicken skin — which gives you a good idea of its appearance. KP’s common characteristics include:

  • Dry, rough skin
  • Small bumps resembling goose flesh, usually found in patches
  • Skin-colored or pink/red
  • Often found on upper arms, legs, buttocks

What do body blemishes look like?

There are two main types of body blemishes:

  • Non-inflammatory: blackheads and whiteheads
  • Inflammatory: papules, pustules and nodules and cysts

It’s non-inflammatory spots — specifically whiteheads — that are typically confused with keratosis pilaris. But whiteheads are different in the following ways:

  • Usually normal to oily skin
  • Small bumps, found alone or in patches
  • Skin-colored or pink/red
  • Often found on back, chest, sometimes buttocks

What’s the difference between keratosis pilaris and blemishes?

Now that we’ve established their visual variations, let’s get a little more technical. While whiteheads and KP bumps can look quite similar — and they’re both basically clogged pores — they’re caused by different things.

Remember that about 90% of your skin’s outermost layer is made up of dead, flattened cells called corneocytes (aka “old” keratinocytes), bound tightly together to form a protective defense. Those cells contain a protein called keratin, which provides the structure and rigidity of the skin barrier.

Which brings us to the key difference between whiteheads and keratosis pilaris:

  • Whiteheads happen when pores become clogged with dead skin cells and sebum.
  • Keratosis pilaris results from excess keratin, which ends up clogging the pore.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure what triggers skin to produce too much keratin, but they suspect there’s a genetic component.

What’s the best way to treat body blemishes?

Because whiteheads and other types of body spots are related to oil and dead cells, choosing an oil-soluble exfoliant will more effectively clean out pores. Dr. Lee favors salicylic acid for the job — find it in SLMD Salicylic Acid Body Wash.

To combat more advanced inflammatory body acne, sulfur (which helps control P. acnes bacteria and calm inflammation) is the ideal choice. Try SLMD Sulfur Lotion, which also works for body breakouts and is gentle enough for daily use.

SLMD Glycolic Acid Body Scrub

What’s the best way to manage keratosis pilaris?

Dr. Lee fans will know that her top recommendation for addressing keratosis pilaris is a combination of exfoliating and moisturising. The best exfoliant in this case is glycolic acid, because its tiny molecular size allows it to penetrate skin’s tough outer layer. This alpha hydroxy acid is a keratolytic, which means it breaks down the bonds holding keratinocytes together.

Dr. Lee’s last word

Body bumps are one of the most common concerns I hear from patients. Sometimes it can be hard for people to tell if it’s a blemish breakout or keratosis pilaris — but skin type and location of the bumps are two key things dermatologists look for. I created my SLMD Skincare body products — Salicylic Acid Body Wash and my Glycolic Acid Body Scrub — to provide everyone with effective treatments.

—Dr. Sandra Lee


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