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Actinic keratoses

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Actinic keratoses (or solar keratoses) are small red, flaky marks on your skin in response to long-term sun damage. They appear many years after sun exposure on sun-exposed areas such as the top of the forehead or crown of the head, tops of ears, forearms, hands, and lower legs.

They feel like rough patches or sandpaper, and yellow or orange scales can appear that resemble tiny cornflakes. The surrounding skin may be pink or red, and there might be other evidence of sun damage, such as deep wrinkles, large freckles, or brown blotches. They don't usually cause any symptoms beyond a mild itch or soreness, but some people feel self-conscious that they look unsightly.

Doctor’s advice

Are there any risks?

Actinic keratoses are not cancers in themselves, but they carry a small risk over a number of years of developing into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). SCC is not a melanoma skin cancer, but if it develops, it needs urgent surgical removal as it carries a risk of disrupting tissues and of spreading to other parts of the body.

Therefore, it's suggested that actinic keratoses be treated as and when they arise. This is a simple procedure involving freezing or applying a cream.

They also act as a warning shot that you have had lots of sun damage, so you should keep checks on any new moles or changes to existing moles and any other lumps or bumps on the skin that aren't going away.

Who gets actinic keratoses?

Because damage takes years of sun exposure, they are unlikely in those under 40 years old.

They are more common in those that burn easily in the sun. This includes those with pale skin, freckles, red or blonde hair and blue eyes. The risk increases if you have a large area of actinic keratoses, called field damage.

Spending significant amounts of time in the sun – either working outdoors, living in hot climates, or sunbathing – puts you at higher risk, along with extensive use of sunbeds.

You are also at higher risk of actinic keratoses and any skin cancers if you are on immunosuppressive medications.

Can I prevent them?

Yes, you can prevent further damage by using sun protection and sun avoidance techniques. Unfortunately, you can't reverse the damage already done, but you can minimize the risk of further damage with treatment.

Everyone should wear sunscreen with broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection, with an SPF of 30 or higher, and it should be reapplied regularly. UVA rays are present from dawn until dusk, and all year round, UVB rays give you sunburn and are strongest in the summer between 11 am and 3 pm – both can cause damage to skin cells that can lead to cancer. Along with sunscreen, it's a safe practice to avoid the sun where possible and wear clothes and hats to cover up.

When should I see my doctor?

You should book a routine appointment with your doctor, who will consider your symptoms and examine you. They may discuss treatment options, depending on how widespread the damage is and your preference, or they may refer you to a dermatologist.

Treatments include a freezing process called cryotherapy or a cream applied daily for a month. Both methods aim to remove the uppermost layer of skin and, with it, the actinic keratoses. It can leave you looking rather red for a few days; it's like a professional chemical peel, so best planned for after any important events or photo opportunities.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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