Actinic keratosis (AK) is a skin disorder. AK is a type of pre-cancer, which means that if you don’t treat the condition, it could turn into cancer. Without treatment, AK can lead to a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. About 58 million Americans have one or more spots of actinic keratosis. AK is the most common type of skin pre-cancer.
Actinic keratosis is a rough, scaly patch on the skin that develops from years of sun exposure. It’s often found on the face, lips, ears, forearms, scalp, neck, or back of the hands.
Also known as solar keratosis, actinic keratosis grows slowly and usually first appears in people over 40. You can reduce your risk of this skin condition by minimizing sun exposure and protecting your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Usually, the first signs of actinic keratosis are rough, raised bumps on your skin. They can vary in color but often have a yellow or brown crust on top. These bumps may be:
Symptoms may also include:
It can be challenging to distinguish between noncancerous spots and cancerous ones. So it’s best to have new skin changes evaluated by a healthcare provider, especially if a scaly spot or patch persists, grows, or bleeds.
The most common cause of actinic keratosis is too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light comes from the sun or indoor tanning equipment like beds. UV light can damage your outer layer of skin cells, called keratinocytes.
UV rays from the sun and tanning beds cause almost all actinic keratosis. Damage to the skin from UV rays builds up over time. It means that even short-term exposure to the sun regularly can build up over a lifetime and increase the risk of actinic keratosis.
Some people are more at risk than others, including:
Your healthcare provider will likely determine whether you have an actinic keratosis simply by looking at your skin. If there’s any doubt, your healthcare provider may do other tests, such as a skin biopsy. During a skin biopsy, a small skin sample is taken for analysis in a lab. A biopsy can usually be done in a clinic after a numbing injection. Even after treatment for actinic keratosis, your healthcare provider might suggest you have your skin checked at least once a year for signs of skin cancer.
An actinic keratosis sometimes disappears but might return after more sun exposure. It’s hard to tell which actinic keratosis will develop into skin cancer, so they’re usually removed as a precaution.
Many methods are used to remove actinic keratosis, including:
If you have several actinic keratoses, your healthcare provider might prescribe a medicated cream or gel to remove them, such as: