Summer is upon us, which means you’re likely showing a bit more skin. Pants become shorts and maxidresses and skirts become minis, as our gams finally get their moment in the sun. But, for those who are dealing with a dotted, bumpy, or spotty appearance on their legs, the short hemlines may be unwelcome. To better understand how to treat and prevent the skin conditions that are often deemed ‘strawberry legs,’ we spoke with a board certified dermatologist.
What Are ‘Strawberry Legs’?
“Strawberry legs are the non-specific reference to a visual dotty appearance to the legs, usually around the hair follicles,” says Nikhil Dhingra, MD, a board certified dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in New York City. “[The dots] represent trapping of a variety of common skin elements in and around the hair and oil glands.” As he explains it, the trappings can be made of up of:
- Keratin (the skin’s main protein)
- Melanin (the source of pigment)
- Sebum (the skin’s natural oil)
- Bacteria (often, natural flora of our skin)
‘Strawberry legs’ is the colloquial term for the dark pores and dots or red bumps that appear primarily on the lower legs because they resemble the seeds of a strawberry. While strawberry legs are not medically harmful, they can be an aesthetic concern.
How to Treat the Causes of Strawberry Legs
While the appearance of strawberry legs is often the same regardless of what triggered it, there are a number of different causes. Knowing the culprit behind your dotted gams will ensure you are treating the right condition. Below are four of the most common causes of strawberry legs and the best way to treat them.
1. Clogged Pores
Just like you can get clogged pores on your face, you can also have clogged pores on your legs. Genetics and thicker body hair can cause some people to have larger pores, and, while the pores alone aren’t necessarily troublesome, they can become problematic when they get clogged with bacteria, dead skin, and sebum. Like a blackhead on the face, when clogged pores on the legs are then exposed to air, the debris dries out and darkens.
Treatment Option: Chemical & Physical Exfoliation
To treat clogged pores on the legs (or anywhere on the body), borrow a step from your facial skincare routine: exfoliation.“My personal preference for my patients is chemical exfoliation, which uses ingredients like acids and retinols to increase skin cell turnover and declog pores,” Dr. Dhingra says. “What this does is gently remove keratin, oils, and other skin debris, opening up the pores and follicles, which decreases the secondary buildup of bacteria. The bacteria that cause acne and folliculitis thrive in clogged hair follicles with oils, so eliminating that build-up is key.”
He recommends finding a body wash or moisturizer with alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids (specifically, glycolic acid and salicylic acid) to remove the dead skin cells and other debris that cause clogged pores. “These acids exfoliate in a sufficiently gentle manner by decreasing the ‘stickiness’ of the dead or dying skin cells,” he explains. “This opens up the pores and also brings in a nice textural change and luminosity to the skin.”
His go-to products include the Glytone Exfoliating Body Wash and Body Lotion, CeraVe SA Cream, and Amlactin Daily Moisturizing Body Lotion. Another pro tip? Dr. Dhingra says to always use a shaving cream or gel and to moisturize after shaving with an oil-free moisturizer to prevent additional build up.
Folliculitis is a common skin condition in which the hair follicles become inflamed or infected. It usually manifests as small red bumps around the hair follicles. In severe cases, people can experience hair loss in the infected area or scarring. But most cases are mild and usually clear up in a few days.
“One thing to keep in mind is that folliculitis is a broad umbrella term that refers to inflammation of the hair follicle,” Dr. Dhingra says. “This can be infectious from bacteria like staphylococcus (staph) or sterile from oil build up or trauma from shaving.”
Treatment Option: Oral & Topical Medication
Folliculitis can be a “tricky condition” to treat, Dr. Dhingra says, which is why he recommends consulting with a board certified dermatologist before attempting any at-home remedies. “Folliculitis can be sterile, where red and pus-filled bumps appear secondary to things like clogged pores and shaving,” he says. “But they can also be a sign of a superficial skin infection with bacteria or yeast like staph and pityrosporum.”
While the former can be easily addressed with over-the-counter products, the latter may require prescriptions like antibiotic lotions or even pills to clear up. “A dermatologist can take a simple swab to identify if there are any organisms to target,” Dr. Dhingra says. “And, if there are, it can save you a lot of hassle and headache of trying to figure out at-home routines that work.”
Treatment Option: Antibacterial Skincare
When it comes to at-home treatments, they range from lifestyle changes to skincare. For starters, you’ll want to change out of your sweaty gym clothes as soon as possible and shower soon after. Once in the tub, Dr. Dhingra recommends using an antibacterial soap, like Hibiclens or PanOxyl, to lather up.
Treatment Option: Shave Smarter
Additionally, you may want to give your shaving routine a fresh look. In addition to swapping a fancy, multi-blade razor for a disposable one, Dr. Dhingra suggests using a soothing shave cream, like the Aveeno Therapeutic Shave Gel. “The tradeoff for less bumpy skin here is giving up the closest shave,” he shares. “In my mind, close shaves and folliculitis risk are inversely related.” He also says that you should shave with (rather than against) the grain every two to three shaves. “If push comes to shove and you’re prone to razor bumps, laser hair removal with a trained professional will save you a lot of headache in the long run,” he adds.
3. Keratosis Pilaris
Also known as ‘chicken skin,’ keratosis pilaris (KP) is a skin condition that causes tiny bumps to populate on the skin. “Keratosis pilaris is most commonly found on the upper outer arms but can affect the thighs at times,” Dr. Dhingra explains. “This represents a build-up of keratin in the hair follicles.”
Treatment Option: Chemical Exfoliation
Like clogged pores, chemical exfoliants are often an effective way of treating keratosis pilaris, but prescription-strength skincare may help as well. “Exfoliative acids are my starting remedies for keratosis pilaris,” Dr. Dhingra says. “If those don’t work, a prescription-grade retinoid would be reasonable, but that should be used in conjunction with a certified dermatologist.”
While keratosis pilaris is often a year-round condition, it is typical to experience flare ups in the winter months when the skin is drier. Additionally, swimmers may experience a worsening of the condition due to chlorine and other pool chemicals that dehydrate the skin.
4. Dry Skin
As formerly mentioned, dry skin contributes to a number of skin conditions — and strawberry legs are no exceptions. Dehydrated skin makes you more prone to irritation, especially when shaving. People with dry skin on their lower legs are more likely to experience razor burn, keratosis pilaris, folliculitis, and clogged pores, all of which can lead to a dotted appearance on the legs.
Treatment Option: Creams & Moisturizers
“Amlactin Daily Moisturizing Body Lotion and CeraVe SA Cream are great starting options for extreme dry skin, especially if there’s a scaly appearance,” Dr. Dhingra shares. Ichthyosis, the medical term for dry, scaly, or thickened skin, does not always respond to traditional creams and moisturizers, which is why a dual-purpose formulation may be required. “Simple moisturizing isn’t always sufficient because there’s a thicker than normal layer of dead skin on the surface,” he explains. “Exfoliative creams gently remove that layer, allowing for thicker moisturizers, like Aquaphor, to penetrate the healthier layers below.”
Strawberry legs may be an umbrella term for a number of skin conditions, but there are a number of things that can be done at-home and in-office to both treat and prevent a bumpy or dotted appearance. Before taking treatment into your own hands, be sure to consult with a board certified dermatologist so you can ensure you understand the root cause of your condition.
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