Actinic Keratosis

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What is Actinic Keratosis?

Actinic keratosis is a scaly, rough patch of skin that is caused by prolonged exposure to the sun. They can often be found on the face, lips, ears, scalp, neck, or the back of the hands, as these areas are often exposed to sunlight. These patches grow slowly and usually appear in people over 40 years old. If left untreated, actinic keratosis can turn into squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.

Actinic keratoses can vary in appearance. Common signs include:

  • Dry, rough, or scaly patch of skin.
  • Flat or slightly raised patch or bump on the top layer of skin.
  • Pink, red, or brown coloring.
  • Burning, itching, crusting, or bleeding.
  • New bumps or patches forming on sun-exposed areas.

Individuals with red or blonde hair and light skin, have a history of sunburn, are older than 40, live in a sunny place, work outside, or have a weakened immune system may be at a higher risk for developing actinic keratosis.

Actinic Keratosis Treatment

Sometimes, an actinic keratosis will disappear on its own but may return when the area is exposed to the sun. Because it is difficult to determine when an actinic keratosis will develop into skin cancer, they are usually removed as a precautionary measure. Treatment options include:


A medicated cream or gel can be prescribed to remove actinic keratoses, such as fluorouracil, imiquimod, ingenol mebutate, or diclofenac. These products may cause scaling, redness, or a burning sensation for a couple of weeks.

Surgery and Other Procedures

  • Cryosurgery: During this treatment, liquid nitrogen is used to remove the actinic keratosis. As your skin heals, the damaged cells will fall off, revealing new skin to appear.
  • Curettage: This involves the use of a special device called a curet to scrape away damaged cells. Local anesthesia is used, and side effects may include changes in skin color or scarring.
  • Photodynamic Therapy: A light-sensitive chemical solution is applied to the affected area. A special light is then shone on the area to destroy the actinic keratosis. Side effects include swelling, redness, and a burning sensation.

Following actinic keratosis treatment, patients are suggested to see a dermatologist for a skin check yearly to ensure they do not have skin cancer.

Actinic Keratosis FAQS

Can actinic keratosis turn into cancer?

Actinic keratosis is a precancerous lesion that could turn into squamous cell carcinoma (skin cancer) if left untreated.

Does actinic keratosis need to be removed?

Although actinic keratosis can go away on its own, it is better to treat and remove it, as it can always return or develop into skin cancer if left untreated.

How do you treat actinic keratosis on the face?

Treatments for actinic keratosis include chemical solutions as well as dermatologic procedures such as cryosurgery, light therapy, and curettage.

Is actinic keratosis dangerous?

Actinic keratoses can progress into skin cancer if untreated.

What is the best treatment for actinic keratosis?

The best treatment for AKs depends on the patient. We like to discuss with the patient what their preference is and proceed accordingly.

Can actinic keratosis turn into basal cell carcinoma?

Actinic keratoses can progress into squamous cell carcinoma if left untreated for long periods of time.

Do chemical peels help actinic keratosis?

Certain chemicals, such as fluorouracil and imiquimod, can be used to treat actinic keratosis, although the chemicals in a typical cosmetic chemical peel are not effective on this condition.

What is the primary cause of actinic keratosis?

Sun exposure and genetic susceptibility.

Why does actinic keratosis itch?

Some AKs itch and some dont!

Should actinic keratosis be biopsied?

We usually treat actinic keratoses with destruction (freezing) or prescription medications. We only biopsy an actinic keratosis if the other methods fail to clear a lesion.

What essential oils are good for actinic keratosis?

Essential oils are not part of our treatment strategy for actinic keratoses. We also STRONGLY DISCOURAGE bloodroot which can cause extreme tissue destruction.

Does Retin A help actinic keratosis?

Retinoids (like Retin A) can help decrease the actinic damage of the skin.

How can you tell the difference between actinic keratosis and seborrheic keratosis?

It is our job to determine the difference between actinic keratosis and seborrheic keratosis (which is benign).

How is actinic keratosis prevented?

Key prevention of actinic keratosis relies on avoiding sun exposure. When not avoidable, wearing sunscreen and covering as much skin as possible in clothing is a way to prevent actinic keratosis.

What causes keratosis?

Actinic keratoses are caused by chronic sun exposure.

What does actinic keratosis look like?

AKs (actinic keratoses) look like red scaly areas. The patient often tells me they feel like a sticker when you run your hand over the area.

Candidates for Actinic Keratosis Treatment

Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell between noncancerous and cancerous spots on the skin. If you notice any changes in your skin over time, be sure to see a dermatologist for a skin exam. If you have been diagnosed with actinic keratosis or have any of the symptoms listed above, you should see Dr. Erwin for a skin assessment for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Contact Us Today

If you are interested in learning more about actinic keratosis or would like treatment, contact our office by calling 979-543-9933 to schedule your consultation appointment with Dr. Erwin.