*This post about how to fix 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.
And when I say “chicken skin,” I DON’T mean the delicious kind that actually comes on a chicken.
I mean the “chicken skin”-ish, red, firm, zit-like-but-not-quite skin bumps that can appear on the backs of the arms, the legs, and elsewhere on your body. It’s called keratosis pilaris.
Even before my acne-prone skin and eczema, one of the first things that improved when I put myself on a comprehensive skin-healing plan were those annoying patches of keratosis pilaris on the backs of my arms.
(I put this plan in a program, FYI, for those needing comprehensive help.)
These bumps are caused by dysfunctional keratinization. All this means is that skin cells are multiplying faster than they’re shedding, or they’re not shedding properly.
(Remember that old computer game, Lemmings? When they all clumped up at the edge of a cliff and fell off, one at a time? Yeah. Kinda like that. Or maybe I’m thinking of a different game. I dunno. Never mind.)
The common advice for this issue is to exfoliate more – whether with a physical exfoliating scrub or a chemical formula meant to loosen “sticky” skin cells, like an Alpha Hydroxy Acid product.
(Chemicals aren’t always bad. There are LOTS of safe ones – and, remember, even water is a chemical!)
Topical approaches are a solid place to start because they tackle the physical symptoms and can improve the look of the skin quickly. My favorite products to attack keratosis pilaris from the outside are safe, gentle chemical formulations (rather than scrubs, which can be too harsh) that use acids to help un-stick skin cells.
Here are my favorites:
- Beautycounter’s Toner Pads (I use these on my arms AND face)
- Dr. Ron’s Glycolic Night Complex (can also be used on the face)
- A simple spritz or swipe of unfiltered Apple Cider Vinegar, which contains a type of alpha hydroxy acid
Remember, though, that the issue will continue coming back if you don’t tackle the root of the problem – which is a little more complicated, but totally fixable.
KP is an INTERNAL problem that manifests EXTERNALLY. Often, it’s a sign of vitamin A deficiency, but even that can be more complicated than it seems.
Here’s what you might need to address. Which one (or which ones) apply to you? Strategize accordingly!
1) A vitamin A deficiency.
What’s happenin’: Because vitamin A plays a major role in keratinization (and in skin health in general), KP is a hallmark sign of vitamin A deficiency.
Sadly, most corrective recommendations involve plants that contain beta carotene, which is not technically vitamin A; it’s a precursor to vitamin A. The problem with that? Most people can’t efficiently convert beta carotene to vitamin A – so it’s essentially useless in tackling this problem.
Beta carotene is different from true vitamin A, and the two nutrients serve different functions in the body. Sadly, the FDA, in their infinite wisdom (sarcasm), allows beta-carotene to be labeled as vitamin A so the myth that they’re the same just won’t die.
So where can you get true vitamin A?
The only sources of pre-formed vitamin A are animal products and seafood – egg yolks, cod liver oil, liver, and full-fat milk.
Food derived from healthy animals eating their natural diets and wild-caught fish is best. Animals are very efficient at converting beta carotene from the plants they eat into vitamin A.
Of all of those options, cod liver oil is a supplement many people swear by for fighting KP because of its high vitamin A content. I like Rosita brand. It’s expensive, but well worth it.
Now, all that said, it’s also important to consider vitamins D and K2, which work with vitamin A in our bodies. If you’re going to add vitamin A to your diet, or if you already consume vitamin A rich foods but aren’t seeing results, consider that it might be:
2) An imbalance of vitamins A, D and K2.
What’s happenin’: If you’re adding sources of extra vitamin A, it’s also important to be sure that you don’t do this to the exclusion of vitamins D and K2. These nutrients work in synergy WITH vitamin A, and it’s vital to keep a balance.
If you already get lots of vitamin A, consider whether you need to work on including sources of vitamins D and K2.
(One of the reasons I like this Cod Liver Oil is because it’s an excellent source of both A and D, and the same website also carries both Emu Oil and Butter Oil supplements, both thought to be strong sources of K2. Again, none of this is cheap, but a little goes a long way.)
Additionally, sunlight is the body’s best source of vitamin D, and it’s only generated by the action of UVB rays on the skin. But most of us avoid the sun or sit behind windows in the office and in the car, which block UVB and allow UVA – the bad rays – in. (The truth about sun exposure is a LONG story for another day; for more info, see this video.)
Unfortunately, vitamin D3 supplements are like taking a hammer to the delicate balance of nutrients in the body, so I don’t love them. I much prefer getting vitamin D from food or the sun.
A good reference for vitamin D levels, what they mean, and why testing vitamin D levels might not give us the information we actually need, listen to this podcast.
To boost vitamins A, D and K2 together, consider drinking some grass-fed, full fat raw milk, if you can tolerate it. Salmon and sardines are good sources of vitamin D as well, though egg yolks and sunshine are tops in my book.
2b) Honorable mention: zinc
Zinc is also vital to skin health, and zinc interacts with vitamin A. Oysters are a great source of zinc.
But if your stomach acid is low – and I’m just about to talk about digestion – zinc won’t get where it needs to go, which can affect the entire onward cascade of nutrient interactions.
If you’re already set on points 1, 2 and 2b, you may just need to give it time. If you’re not so sure, though, it may be time to consider:
3) A digestive insufficiency.
What’s happenin’: If you’re getting plenty of good nutrition, the issue may be related to what your body is DOING with that nutrition. Are you digesting and assimilating nutrients properly, and are they getting where they need to go?
This is, quite honestly, too much to cover in this post, and it requires a really extensive discussion of every part of the digestive cascade to evaluate what might be going on.
I talk extensively about digestion in the Purely Primal Skincare Guide, and the internet is full of free information about digestive health for you to explore!
What about more aggressive topical strategies?
I don’t recommend physical exfoliation with rough substances like apricot kernels, rough loofahs, or even baking soda. These can irritate the skin and do more harm than good.
That said, I DO recommend daily gentle dry-brushing, which has benefits beyond exfoliation, and the recommendations at the beginning of this post for gentle chemical exfoliators can really help.
For extreme cases, you can also try a short-term intervention with a safe, stronger glycolic “peel” administered by a professional.
If you need more guidance, or help optimizing digestive function while learning new strategies for healing the skin, check out the Purely Primal Skincare Guide.
Thanks for reading!
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