Every year, some 40 million Americans get at least one spot on their skin that looks discolored, scaly, or rough. They have what's called actinic keratosis, or AK, and it's among the most common skin problems that Dermatologists see, according to the American Academy of Dermatologists.
This condition gets its name from the cause and the symptom: "actinic" means a reaction from light, whereas "keratosis" is an overgrowth of the skin protein keratin. Also known as "solar keratosis," actinic keratosis happens when a person spends too much time in ultraviolet light—whether from the sun or tanning beds.
But just because it's common doesn't mean it's not concerning: actinic keratosis is a precancer. If left untreated, it could turn into squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a potentially dangerous form of skin cancer. Although only about 5 percent to 10 percent of AKs become cancerous, most SCCs begin as actinic keratosis.
Fortunately, prompt treatment at your doctor's office as well as self-care at home can help keep these precancers from getting worse. It can also help reduce the risk of getting future AK growths. You just have to learn how to identify the condition and also how to treat actinic keratosis.
How to Know If You Have Actinic Keratosis
Not all skin growths are actinic keratosis, so it's best to consult with a board-certified Dermatologist first if you notice something strange on your skin. They can conduct a thorough exam—and maybe even a biopsy—to help make an accurate diagnosis, notes the Mayo Clinic.
In general, most AKs are rough to the touch; some people may even feel their actinic keratoses but not see them. If AKs do show themselves, they may look like a scaly, dry, or scabby area on the skin, usually in areas that see a lot of sun, such as the face, ears, lips, neck, hands, or arms. They can be a range of colors, from tan to brown, white, red, or pink. Sometimes, but not always, these spots can cause an itchy or burning sensation.
AKs can show up at any age, but given that they're slow-growing, they tend to happen after age 40. You're most at risk if you've spent a lot of time in direct sunlight or tanning beds or if you've had frequent sunburns over your lifetime. Having blonde or red hair or blue eyes are additional risk factors for AKs.
How to Treat Actinic Keratosis: 3 Tips for At-Home Care
If you're diagnosed with actinic keratosis, your Dermatologist will develop a treatment plan that works for you based on how many growths you have, growth size, and other factors. Most physicians may recommend that you get AKs removed to be safe—either by using medicated gels or creams or through an in-clinic procedure, such as a medical-grade chemical peel, curettage, cryotherapy, or laser/light therapy.
Unfortunately, once you're diagnosed with one AK, you may be at a higher risk of getting more. That's why you should take good care of your skin in the weeks, months, and years after your actinic keratosis treatment to help prevent future growths from forming. These at-home tips may help.
1. Protect Your Skin
Always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, and reapply at least every two hours. Research has shown that regular, daily use of sunscreen leads to fewer AKs and also a lower risk of these existing precancers turning into cancer.
2. Ask About Post-Procedure Products
Because some treatments may briefly make your skin more sensitive, post-procedure ointments and gels may help with healing and recovery. Just make sure you ask your doctor first before using them.
3. Do Regular Self-Exams
Ask your doctor how frequently you should be doing skin self-exams once you've had a confirmed diagnosis of actinic keratosis. They may want you to do skin self-exams more often so that you can keep an eye out for future problems.
As you follow these at-home care tips, stay in touch with your Dermatologist about any new developments you notice—from growths and bumps to moles and marks. Remember: actinic keratosis is highly treatable, so take a lifesaving step by calling your doctor at the first sign of concern. You'll be glad you did.