What Is Actinic Keratosis?

Actinic keratosis usually appears as a rough, scaly patch or bump on your skin and is very common.

It’s caused by ultraviolet (UV) damage to your skin. And, since some actinic keratoses can turn into squamous cell skin cancer, these lesions are often considered precancerous. The good news is they are not life-threatening, and if they are found and treated early, do not have the chance of developing into skin cancer.


Actinic keratosis is the most common precancer, and it affects more than 58 million Americans.

Signs and Symptoms of Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratosis develops slowly. It usually appears on the areas of your skin that are frequently exposed to the sun. In addition, if you have actinic keratosis it’s likely you will have more than one lesion. The lesions are commonly found on your face, ears, neck, backs of hands, forearms and balding scalp.

Common symptoms include areas:

  • On your head: Usually appears as a rough or scaly patch that lies fairly flat.
  • On you hand or arm: Typically appears as scaly patch or raised bump.
  • Color at the base: It may be light or dark, tan, pink, red, or a combination of these, or it may be the same color as your skin.

Causes of Actinic Keratosis

Almost all actinic keratosis is caused by exposure to sun’s UV rays and tanning beds with the damage to your skin building up over time. Even repeated short-term exposure to sun on a regular basis over the years can build up and may increase your risk of developing actinic keratoses.

Some people are more at risk than others, including:

  • People with pale skin, blonde or red hair, and blue, green, or gray eyes
  • Older adults
  • People with conditions that make their skin very sensitive to sun exposure
  • People with suppressed immune systems

Actinic Keratosis Treatments

Treatment for an actinic keratosis may include:

  • Cryotherapy – to freeze the lesion
  • Topical chemotherapy – applied to the skin to eliminate the lesion or lesions
  • Laser surgery – remove lesions from the face and scalp

Most actinic keratoses can be successfully treated and cured. However in rare cases, they may come back and need re-treated. This is just one more reason why it’s so important not to skip your annual skin exam!