An actinic keratosis (ak-TIN-ik ker-uh-TOE-sis) is a rough, scaly patch on your skin that develops from years of exposure to the sun. It's most commonly found on your face, lips, ears, back of your hands, forearms, scalp or neck.
Also known as a solar keratosis, an actinic keratosis enlarges slowly and usually causes no signs or symptoms other than a patch or small spot on your skin. These patches take years to develop, usually first appearing in people over 40.
A small percentage of actinic keratosis lesions can eventually become skin cancer. You can reduce your risk of actinic keratoses by minimizing your sun exposure and protecting your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays.
The signs and symptoms of an actinic keratosis include:
Actinic keratoses are found primarily on areas exposed to the sun, such as your face, lips, ears, hands, forearms, scalp and neck.
It can be difficult to distinguish between noncancerous spots and cancerous ones. So it's best to have new skin changes evaluated by a doctor â especially if a spot or lesion persists, grows or bleeds.
An actinic keratosis is caused by frequent or intense exposure to UV rays, from the sun or from tanning beds.
Your doctor will likely be able to determine whether you have an actinic keratosis simply by examining your skin. If there's any doubt, he or she may do other tests, such as a skin biopsy. During a skin biopsy, your doctor takes a small sample of your skin for analysis in a lab. A biopsy can usually be done in a doctor's office after a numbing injection.
Even after treatment for actinic keratosis, your doctor will likely suggest that you have your skin checked at least once a year for signs of skin cancer.
If treated early, almost all actinic keratoses can be cleared up or removed before they develop into skin cancer. If left untreated, some of these spots may progress to squamous cell carcinoma â a type of cancer that usually isn't life-threatening if detected and treated early.
Prevention of actinic keratoses is important because the condition can precede cancer or be an early form of skin cancer. Sun safety is necessary to help prevent development and recurrence of actinic keratosis patches and spots.
Take these steps to protect your skin from the sun:
Use sunscreen. Daily use of sunscreen reduces the development of actinic keratoses. Before spending time outdoors, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
Use sunscreen on all exposed skin, and use lip balm with sunscreen on your lips. Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure and reapply it every two hours or more often if you swim or sweat.
Anyone can develop actinic keratoses. But you may be more likely to develop the condition if you: