Understanding Actinic Keratosis

Medical Author: Nili N. Alai, MD, FAAD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

What are actinic keratoses?

Actinic keratoses (AKs) are small, red, rough, scaly, flat spots that feel like dry skin patches. They often occur on sun-exposed areas, such as the nose, ears, face, chest, forearms, and back of the hands. Other common names include AK, AKs, solar keratosis, precancers, and pre-skin cancers.

At what age do AKs develop?

Experts agree that AKs are most common in older adults and seniors. AKs are extremely rare in children or adolescents.

What are my chances of my precancers becoming skin cancers?

Anywhere from 5%-10% of AKs can potentially go on to become skin cancers. It is not possible to tell which ones will do this. Some AKs will never develop into anything else. Some AKs go away without treatment.

Do actinic keratoses ever turn into melanoma (a deadly form of skin cancer)?

No. While AKs may give rise to skin cancers like squamous cell carcinomas, they do not turn into melanomas. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that people with AKs may be more prone to melanomas simply by having more sun damage.

How do I prevent developing more precancers?

Helpful measures include sun protection with hats, clothing, sunscreen, and sun avoidance, particularly during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Additional long-term maintenance options include nightly applications of retinoid creams, such as tretinoin (Retin-A) or tazarotene (Tazorac). Some studies also have shown a benefit from using green tea creams to decrease the number of AKs.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/1/2014