"Strawberry legs:" A cute name for a not-so-cute situation. Also sometimes known as folliculitis (the technical term) or simply dark pores, it’s the dreaded smattering of dots you get on your legs after shaving that resemble the seeds of the fruit—hence, the nickname.
And contrary to what you might think, strawberry legs aren’t a seasonal affliction. It’s just that we tend to notice them more when we’re wearing shorts and skirts in the summer, as opposed to when we’re covered up in jeans and leggings the rest of the year.
To help clear things up (both figuratively and literally), we asked Dendy Engelman, MD, of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York, to break things down for us.
First things first: What causes strawberry legs?
"Strawberry legs are typically caused by three factors: keratosis pilaris, inflamed hair follicles (aka the aforementioned folliculitis) or ingrown hairs. All of them appear as small bumps on the skin," explains Engelman. It’s important to narrow down which of these causes is the culprit in order to troubleshoot the issue.
1. Keratosis pilaris
In this case, keratin (a protein that exists in the skin, hair and nails) gets trapped and "causes a plug to form over your follicular openings resulting in a bumpy surface," says Engelman. Translation: When keratin builds up, it can clog your hair follicles.
If you’re prone to getting those pesky little bumps on your upper arms, you are already familiar with KP and the treatment for it (spoiler alert: exfoliation), which we’ll get to in more depth shortly.
Folliculitis occurs when your pores get clogged with oil, bacteria, dead skin cells and other debris that we all come into contact with on a regular basis. Once your pores get clogged, it results in inflamed hair follicles, which usually show up as tiny reddish bumps or small white-heads that resemble acne.
3. Ingrown hairs
And last but not least, there’s our lovely friend, the ingrown hair, which according to Dr. Engelman, "is a common occurrence for many people and is caused by a hair that curls into itself and starts to grow back underneath the surface of your skin instead of above it." They are commonly found in areas where you shave or wax like your legs, armpits, face and pubic area.
OK, now that we know the main causes of strawberry legs, let’s get to the part you might have already scrolled down to...
How can you treat strawberry legs?
1. Exfoliate your skin
"In general, if you’re prone to getting bumps, I would recommend using a chemical exfoliant or a topical treatment that contains lactic or glycolic acid regularly," advises Engelman. Both of these ingredients help slough off dead cells that sit on the surface of your skin, so they don’t build up and increase the likelihood of clogging your pores.
2. Use products containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or retinol
"Since folliculitis is technically considered to be a mild form of acne, over-the-counter products that contain ingredients such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinol should do the trick. These products work by killing bacteria, drying excess oil and encouraging your skin to shed dead cells," says Engelman.
3. Moisturize thoroughly
Equally important is to keep the area well moisturized (which is especially crucial after exfoliating or using products that dry out excess oils). Hydrated skin will be more pliable, less likely to get inflamed, and your hair will grow out more easily (as opposed to getting trapped underneath the surface).
"I like to 'soak and grease' my skin, which you can do by applying a body oil and letting it absorb for the duration of your shower and immediately following with lotion. Applying oil and lotion on wet skin will allow the product to lock moisture in by trapping some of the water on the skin. Plus, the glycerin in the lotion helps to bind to water molecules, which not only gives a supple feeling but softens the skin barrier," says Engelman.
4. Do not pick
And whatever you do, please do not pick at your bumps—especially with sharp tools (put down the tweezers, y’all). You don’t want to compromise your skin and get an infection.
Bottom line: When dealing with strawberry legs (or any other skin condition), you have to be patient and allow enough time for the products to do their job. If things don’t improve within a couple of weeks, see your dermatologist.
How can you prevent getting strawberry legs in the first place?
1. Cleanse often (especially after you sweat)
To prevent folliculitis, which is usually caused by sweat, oil or bacteria, keep a cleansing wipe on hand at all times (Engelman likes Dickinson’s Original Witch Hazel Refreshingly Clean Towelettes). Toss one in your bag and use it to clean your skin whenever you get particularly sweaty (i.e., after a workout or muggy commute). When you get home, use a gentle body wash that contains salicylic acid to reduce any inflammation and keep your pores clear.
2. Use a clean, sharp razor
To ward off future bumps and ingrown hairs, the most important thing you can do is to make sure that you are using a clean, sharp razor at all times. Ideally, you should be switching your blade out as soon as you notice any signs of dulling (a rusted blade or experiencing any friction or tugging when shaving are red flags). Also, despite the convenience of having your razor at arm’s length in the shower, the constant proximity to heat and moisture can dull your blade faster, so you’re better off keeping it inside your medicine cabinet—or preferably as far away from the shower as possible.
3. Shave properly
Dr. Engelman also advises that you shave with the grain of the hair or the direction in which it grows "using short, deliberate strokes." If you shave in too many different directions, you will increase the chances of getting razor burn or ingrown hairs because of the angle the hair was shaved off."
4. Care for your skin
Final advice: Exfoliate regularly (as outlined above) and keep your skin well-moisturized. Bye-bye, berries.