Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratosis (AK), also known as solar keratosis, is a common skin condition characterized by rough, scaly patches on sun-exposed areas of the skin. These precancerous lesions can potentially progress to squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a type of skin cancer. Understanding AK, its causes, symptoms, and treatment options is crucial for effective management and prevention.

What is Actinic Keratosis?

Actinic keratosis is a rough, scaly patch on the skin caused by years of sun exposure. It often appears on sun-exposed areas such as the face, lips, ears, forearms, scalp, neck, or back of the hands. AK is considered a precancerous condition because it can develop into SCC if left untreated.

What Causes Actinic Keratosis?

The primary cause of AK is prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds. UV radiation damages the DNA in skin cells, leading to abnormal cell growth. Risk factors for developing AK include:

  • Fair skin, red or blond hair, and light-colored eyes
  • History of sunburns or extensive sun exposure
  • Age over 40
  • A weakened immune system due to medical conditions or medications
  • Use of tanning beds.

What Are the Symptoms of Actinic Keratosis?

AK lesions typically begin as small, rough spots that are easier felt than seen. They may enlarge over time, becoming red, scaly, and sometimes tender. Common symptoms include:

  • Rough, dry, or scaly patches of skin
  • Flat to slightly raised bumps
  • Color variations, including pink, red, or brown
  • Itching, burning, or crusting.

Diagnosis is usually made through a visual examination by a healthcare provider. In some cases, a skin biopsy may be performed to rule out SCC.

What are the Treatment Options for Actinic Keratosis?

Treatment aims to remove lesions, prevent progression to SCC, and achieve good cosmetic results. Options include:

Topical Treatments

  • 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU): Applied as a cream to destroy abnormal cells.
  • Imiquimod: Stimulates the immune system to attack abnormal cells.
  • Diclofenac: An anti-inflammatory gel that treats AK.
  • Tirbanibulin (Klysiri): A newer topical treatment with promising results.


Liquid nitrogen is used to freeze and destroy AK lesions. This is a quick and effective office procedure.

Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)

A light-sensitive medication is applied to the skin, followed by exposure to a specific light wavelength to destroy abnormal cells. PDT is effective for treating large areas of AK.

How Can Actinic Keratosis Be Prevented?

Preventing AK involves protecting the skin from UV radiation. Key strategies include:

  • Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher
  • Wearing protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses
  • Avoiding peak sunlight hours (10 AM to 4 PM)
  • Regular skin checks and dermatologist visits.

What are the Potential Complications of Actinic Keratosis?

The main concern with AK is its potential to progress to SCC. Early detection and treatment are crucial to prevent this progression. Regular follow-ups with a dermatologist are recommended for individuals with a history of AK.

Living with Actinic Keratosis

Managing AK involves lifestyle changes and regular medical follow-ups. Patients should practice sun safety, monitor their skin for new lesions, and adhere to treatment plans. Psychological and cosmetic considerations are also important, as AK can affect self-esteem and appearance.

Next Steps

Need help with your actinic keratosis? We are here to help! Book an appointment or call/text us at (801) 768-8800.


If you’re thinking about next steps, get in touch to schedule a consultation.