What is actinic keratosis?
Actinic keratosis (AK) is a skin disorder that causes rough, scaly patches of skin. Another name for AK is solar keratosis. AK is a type of precancer, 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.
Who might get actinic keratosis?
People who don’t protect their skin from sun exposure are more likely to get actinic keratosis. Your risk is also higher if you have:
- Blond or red hair.
- Blue or green eyes.
- Fair or light complexion.
- History of multiple or severe sunburns.
- Weakened immune system because of illness or immunotherapy treatment for cancer.
What causes it?
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, such as tanning beds. UV light can damage your outer layer of skin cells, called keratinocytes.
What are the symptoms of actinic keratosis?
Usually, the first signs of actinic keratosis are rough, raised bumps on your skin. They can vary in colour but often have a yellow or brown crust on top. These bumps may be:
- The same colour as your skin.
Symptoms may also include:
- Burning, stinging or itching.
- Dry, scaly lips.
- Hornlike skin growths that stick out (like an animal’s horn).
- Loss of colour in the lips.
- Pain or tenderness.
How is it treated?
Treatment options depend on how many actinic keratoses (AKs) you have and what they look like. Your healthcare provider may recommend removing the skin patches during an office visit.
To remove actinic keratosis, your provider may use:
- Chemical peels: A chemical peel is like a medical-grade face mask. Your healthcare provider applies the peel during an office visit. The chemicals in the treatment safely destroy unwanted patches in your top layer of skin. In the first few days, the treated area will be sore and red. As the skin heals, you will see a new, healthy layer of skin.
- Cryotherapy: If you have one or two AKs, your provider may use cryotherapy. During this treatment, your provider uses a cold substance such as liquid nitrogen to freeze skin growths. Within a few days, these growths will blister and peel off.
- Excision: During this treatment, your healthcare provider first numbs the skin around your AK. Your provider then scrapes away or cuts out the AKs and stitches the area back together. Usually, the wound will heal in two to three weeks.
How can I prevent this?
The best way to prevent actinic keratosis is to avoid prolonged UV exposure. You can protect your skin by:
- Applying sunscreen every day, even in cloudy weather or during winter, and re-applying often — at least every two hours. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB light. We recommend Heliocare
- Avoiding sun exposure when UV light is most intense, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- Avoiding tanning salons, sun lamps and tanning beds.