It’s that magical time of year where flowers and the lower three quarters of your legs finally start popping out again. Ah, rebirth! The weather’s been coasting at a steady, sunny, over 50, which means that in addition to weekend plans, the state of your lower body is top of mind again.
Maybe the view down there is looking a lot like strawberry legs. Having small dark or red dots that kind of look like strawberry seeds is super common, though it's not a skin condition in and of itself. Dr. Annie Gonzalez, a board-certified dermatologist in bare leg-centric Miami, explains that there are really a few skin conditions that can cause them. You need to determine which you’re dealing with, because each should be addressed differently if you want the bumps to go away.
One potential issue is folliculitis, which “arises when your hair follicles become infected,” says Dr. Gonzalez. That can happen because you haven’t been exfoliating, and your follicles become clogged with oil and dirt. If you have very coarse or curly hair, sometimes the hairs become ingrowns, and when you shave or wax over them, irritation ensues. Or, you might get folliculitis without ingrowns—shaving and waxing both open the hair follicles, which leaves them vulnerable to infection. (Folliculitis is often called “razor burn” for this reason!) The hair follicles then fill with bacteria, which causes inflammation and itchy red bumps. “Avoid shaving or waxing when you’re experiencing a flare-up, along with tight clothing,” says Dr. Gonzalez, who also adds that changing out of dirty pants when you get home can also help keep your follicles clean and bacteria-free. If you do want to shave, consider using a single-blade razor and a gentle fragrance-free shaving cream, and remember to change your blade often.
Treatment for folliculitis varies depending on severity. If it’s mild, you can use an OTC cortisone cream to help with itchiness; more severe cases of persistent pus-filled bumps should be looked at by a dermatologist. A treatment plan can include a combination of antifungal creams, oral antibiotics, and steroids, and your doctor may additionally suggest in-office procedures. If you’re constantly dealing with folliculitis, you might also consider laser hair removal—no hairs, nothing to irritate your skin with shaving or ingrowns.
The other possibility? Your bumps might be caused by keratosis pilaris, especially if you’re noticing them on your thighs and not your shins. “Unlike folliculitis, KP does not itch and is not painful in any way,” clarifies Dr. Gonzalez. Also unlike folliculitis, it’s not caused by an infection. Instead, KP happens when an excess of keratin protein (the same keratin in your hair and nails) clogs the openings of your hair follicles. This most often happens to people who have dry skin or eczema. It’s “entirely harmless,” but does stud follicles with tiny bumps, and despite being less painful Dr. Gonzales notes that KP is often trickier to treat.
“Exfoliating can help remove dead skin cells and make the ‘strawberry’ dots less noticeable,” she explains. But, particularly with manual exfoliators (scrubs, dry brushes, Salux cloths, gloves), be careful you’re not trying to scrape the bumps off. First of all, it won’t work. But more importantly you can end up irritating and opening the follicles, which makes them ripe for folliculitis. Don’t do that! Either scrub gently, or look for a lotion that has a gentle AHA like lactic acid to dissolve excess keratin. Regular exfoliation and moisturizing is pretty much all you can do to prevent KP. For particularly persistent cases a derm might advise you to treat the areas with Retin-A.
“If neither condition resolves, make an appointment with a dermatologist for a customized treatment plan,” says Dr. Gonzalez. Or, just embrace the strawberry leg lifestyle. If you’re going to aesthetically align with a fruit, strawberries happen to be pretty cute.
Photo via ITG