An actinic keratosis (ak-TIN-ik ker-uh-TOE-sis) is a rough, scaly patch on your skin that develops from years of exposure to the sun. It’s most commonly found on your face, lips, ears, back of your hands, forearms, scalp or neck.
Also known as a solar keratosis, an actinic keratosis enlarges slowly and usually causes no signs or symptoms other than a patch or small spot on your skin. These patches take years to develop, usually first appearing in people over 40.
A small percentage of actinic keratosis lesions can eventually become skin cancer. You can reduce your risk of actinic keratoses by minimizing your sun exposure and protecting your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays.
The signs and symptoms of an actinic keratosis include:
- Rough, dry or scaly patch of skin, usually less than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter
- Flat to slightly raised patch or bump on the top layer of skin
- In some cases, a hard, wartlike surface
- Color as varied as pink, red or brown
- Itching or burning in the affected area
Actinic keratoses are found primarily on areas exposed to the sun, such as your face, lips, ears, hands, forearms, scalp and neck.
Prevention of actinic keratoses is important because the condition can precede cancer or be an early form of skin cancer. Sun safety is necessary to help prevent development and recurrence of actinic keratosis patches and spots.
Take these steps to protect your skin from the sun:
- Limit your time in the sun. Especially avoid time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. And avoid staying in the sun so long that you get a sunburn or a suntan. Both result in skin damage that can increase your risk of developing actinic keratoses and skin cancer. Sun exposure accumulated over time may also cause actinic keratoses.
- Use sunscreen. Daily use of sunscreen reduces the development of actinic keratoses. Before spending time outdoors, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.Use sunscreen on all exposed skin, and use lip balm with sunscreen on your lips. Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure and reapply it every two hours — or more often if you’re swimming or perspiring.
- Cover up. For extra protection from the sun, wear tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs. Also wear a broad-brimmed hat, which provides more protection than does a baseball cap or golf visor. You might also consider wearing clothing or outdoor gear specially designed to provide sun protection.
- Avoid tanning beds. The UV exposure from a tanning bed can cause just as much skin damage as a tan acquired from the sun.
- Check your skin regularly and report changes to your doctor. Examine your skin regularly, looking for the development of new skin growths or changes in existing moles, freckles, bumps and birthmarks. With the help of mirrors, check your face, neck, ears and scalp. Examine the tops and undersides of your arms and hands.