Actinic Keratosis

Learn more about this precancerous skin condition and your treatment options.

If you have an actinic keratosis, it’s normal to have questions. At Henry Ford Dermatology, we have answers.

Our dermatology specialists will provide the information you need about actinic keratoses, along with a range of treatment options.

What is an actinic keratosis?

An actinic keratosis is a type of skin lesion, or a damaged area of tissue. If you have multiple lesions of this type, we call them actinic keratoses.

These lesions typically result from repeated and prolonged exposure to sunlight. Without treatment, an actinic keratosis can develop into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

Am I at risk for actinic keratoses?

Henry Ford’s dermatologists usually see actinic keratoses in older adults, but the lesions can appear earlier in people who have more exposure to sunlight. Some of the risk factors for developing an actinic keratosis include:

  • Fair skin -- darker-skinned people have a lower risk for these lesions
  • Frequency of being outdoors, such as for work or sports
  • Male gender -- men are more likely than women to have an actinic keratosis

What does an actinic keratosis look like?

You should be on the lookout for any discolored areas of your skin, especially if you’re exposed to sunlight on a regular basis. Actinic keratoses commonly have the following characteristics:

  • Commonly seen on the face, ears, neck, forearms, hands, and shins
  • May be scattered across the body or only in certain areas
  • May be single or multiple lesions
  • May have scaly, rough, or thickened skin areas
  • Skin-colored, yellowish-brown, or brown
  • Usually round and less than 1 centimeter (about 0.4 inch) in size

What are the treatment options for an actinic keratosis?

The best way to treat an actinic keratosis is to prevent it before it starts. Because an actinic keratosis is a precancerous lesion, we want to minimize the chance of patients ever developing one.

Prevention

One of the best ways to lower your risk of an actinic keratosis is to use sunscreens that block both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. People who may be at risk should use these sunscreens daily and limit their exposure to sunlight whenever possible.

Treatment options

Our doctors can help with one or a combination of these treatment options:

  • Chemical peels may be used when large areas are affected
  • Liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy) and topical creams often are effective in removing many actinic keratoses
  • Photodynamic therapy with red, blue, or laser light is very effective for multiple actinic keratoses, and it provides an excellent cosmetic outcome
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