While skin bumps rarely present a health risk, nobody wants their skin to feel more like rough sandpaper than soft like a baby’s. But establishing the reason for your offending skin bumps is no easy feat. Furthermore, what might be a super-effective treatment for whiteheads might actually cause other skin conditions to worsen. And nobody wants that.
If you’re unsure what your rough skin is all about, here are seven of the most common reasons for bumpy skin and a plan of action for each. Of course, a trip to the dermatologist’s office is always the best way to diagnose skin concerns, but it doesn’t help to have a little intel up your sleeves, right?
What They Are: Comedones are known to us regular folk as whiteheads and blackheads, and they appear when your pores become clogged with excess sebum, bacteria, and dead skin cells. If the pore remains closed, it forms a flesh-colored bump called a whitehead. If the pore opens up, the combination of oil and dead skin cells oxidizes and turns brown or black, transforming into a dreaded blackhead. Comedones don’t generally hurt or itch, but they are super-annoying.
How to Treat Them: Never pick, squeeze, or scrub at comedones as this could cause them to become angry and inflamed. Instead, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a nightly retinoid treatment (either prescription tretinoin or over-the-counter retinol) to increase cell turnover and reduce your chance of pore blockage.
Gentle chemical exfoliation will also help break down the bonds between dead skin, oil, and bacteria so ensure your routine includes a treatment product containing an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) like lactic or glycolic acid and/or a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) like salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is particularly effective at treating comedones because it is oil-soluble and can penetrate through the lipid layers and deep into the pores of your skin to dissolve any debris that is clogging up your pores.
What It Is: Acne is caused by the same build-up of oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells, but acne spots are different from comedones in that they form deeper under the skin’s surface and become red and inflamed. Early pimples that are red and hard are called papules while those nasty, pus-filled yellow tops are called pustules (if they’re even deeper, larger, and angrier, they’re known as nodules and cysts among dermatologists).
How to Treat it: At the doctor’s office, antibiotics, combined oral contraceptives, retinoids, or benzoyl peroxide are the most common treatments prescribed for acne, but other people find that a combination of chemical peels, light therapy, or professional extraction is just as effective.
At home, avoid oil-heavy skincare, resist the urge to pick or squeeze at pimples, and invest in a treatment containing salicylic acid because it clinically proven to be effective for acne. Lactic acid is also awesome at killing bacteria, increasing cell turnover, and polishing away dead skin cells, and it is also way more gentle than glycolic acid, making it a great ingredient for acne-prone skin that often feels sensitive and irritated as well as inflamed and angry. Try our Overnight Star Lactic Acid Treatment as a twice-weekly nightly treatment, which also includes licorice to help reduce inflammation and aloe to heal and rejuvenate.
Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)
What it is: Atopic dermatitis (AD) is the most common form of eczema, and although it is usually found on the arms and behind the knees, it can appear anywhere. It affects one in 10 Americans and is usually characterized by dry, red, and itchy skin accompanied by small raised bumps that may crust over. The cause of AD is still unknown, but it is usually triggered by an over-active immune system or external factors such as stress, the environment, irritants, or allergens.
How to Treat it: Despite decades of medical research, there’s sadly no cure for atopic dermatitis, but you can control and relieve it. Try to avoid unnecessary stress (we know it is easier said than done) and cut out all known irritants from your skincare routine. Substances like fragrances, parabens, sulfates, alcohol, and formaldehyde, for example, are very common irritants.
You’ll also want to cleanse gently using a mild soap and moisturize at least twice a day with a cream or lotion containing soothing, hydrating ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, oat extracts, and ceramides. Brands like Aveeno, La Roche-Posay, and Cerave all produce very effective treatments for super-sensitive skin that suffers from AD.
What it is: Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin has an allergic reaction after coming into direct contact with something it doesn’t like. When it comes to your face, these allergens are usually chemicals in your skincare, laundry detergent, or makeup, but certain foods, metals in your jewelry, and plants like poison ivy can also cause contact dermatitis. As well as bumps that might ooze or crust, symptoms include itching, dry skin, swelling, and redness.
How to Treat it: Identifying the cause of contact dermatitis is the single most important step in treating it, so if you think your bumpy skin has been caused by a reaction to something, an allergy test with a skincare expert is the best way to pinpoint the culprit.
In the meantime, try not to scratch the offending area, and invest in an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream or oral antihistamine to calm the irritation.
What it is: According to the National Rosacea Society, more than 16 million people suffer with rosacea in the US. It’s often confused with acne, but acne is primarily a disorder of the sebaceous glands whereas rosacea has never been fully understood. Experts do agree, however, that it is more common among Caucasians and is often exacerbated by factors like stress, alcohol, caffeine, spicy food, and extreme temperatures.
Rosacea can manifest itself in many forms, but symptoms include facial redness, bumpy breakouts, skin thickening, and even dry eyes and blurry vision. Because rosacea is easily confused with acne, getting a proper diagnosis from a skin professional is always imperative.
How to Treat it: Prevention is very important, so try to avoid the triggers (see above) as much as possible and wear a broad-screen, physical sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every day. Topical prescriptive medications like Finacea and Metrolgel are also very effective for helping control bumpy pimples caused by rosacea as are oral antibiotics such as Oracea.
When it comes to your at-home regimen, avoid harsh cleansers and only wash your skin with lukewarm or cold water. Moisturize daily with a gentle, fragrance-free lotion or cream, and avoid products that contain alcohol and sulfates.
What It Is: Keratosis pilaris, or 'chicken skin’ as it is not-so affectionately called, is a condition that causes small, sometimes itchy little bumps on the skin. These bumps usually occur on the top of the arms or legs, but they can also rear their ugly heads on your face, which is no fun. They’re caused by a build-up of keratin in the hair follicles, but the reasons why they appear on some people and not on others has never properly been understood. The good news is there are many ways to treat keratosis pilaris.
How to Treat it: While it might be tempting to grab the nearest scrub to exfoliate those bumps away, this could over-stimulate and aggravate your skin which will do nothing but make the condition worse. Instead, use a gentle, chemical exfoliating treatment like Overnight Star Lactic Acid Treatment once or twice a week and ensure your skin is always well moisturized. Moisturization is especially important in the winter when keratosis pilaris usually worsens due to cold temperatures, low humidity, and indoor heating.
Retinoids are another great choice for increasing cell turnover and stopping keratin before it gets a chance to clog up your follicles. Just remember to start with a low concentration, and apply it just once or twice a week, so as to not exacerbate irritation.
What They Are: If your bumps are primarily around your eyes, nose, and tops of the cheeks and are small, hard, and either white or yellow in color, then you probably have milia. Milia are caused by keratin becoming trapped in pockets under the skin, which is why they’re often confused with keratosis pilaris. The key difference? Keratosis pilaris usually looks red, whereas milia are white or yellow and are more often found on the face.
How to Treat Them: Milia usually come and go within a couple of months, but if you really want to get rid of milia quickly and effectively – without causing damage to your skin – having them extracted at the dermatologist’s office is the best way to go.
There are also a few simple tricks you can do at home to help speed up the natural shedding process. First, unless you want to run the risk of infection and scarring, never scratch them. This is very, very important. Next, ensure you cleanse gently twice a day and exfoliate once or twice a week with Overnight Star Lactic Acid Treatment to encourage cell turnover and reduce blockages. And finally, try the age-old trick of steaming your face to open up your pores and encourage milia to work their way out of your skin. However, steaming does not give you the green light to start picking and trying to force your milia out.