Actinic keratosis

What is actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis is also called solar keratosis because it is caused by long-term exposure of skin to ultraviolet rays contained in the sunlight. It is a very common condition in white-skinned people particularly over the age of 50.

It appears as single or multiple skin patches which are reddish, rough and scaly. It is common to have this on the areas of the skin which are usually exposed to the sun such as face, ears, scalp, back of hands and lower leg but it can occur on any part of the body.

Actinic keratosis is not a skin cancer but in a small number of cases it can develop into one, so it is advisable to seek medical advice.

Various treatment options are available, such as creams (topical chemotherapy), freezing (cryotherapy), surgery or exposure to special light (photodynamic therapy). Your doctor will advise which of these is suitable for you.

Once the lesion is adequately treated, it rarely comes back. However, there is an increased chance of developing new lesions. For that reason, you must take the following steps:

  • Examine your skin regularly and seek medical advice for any lesion that does not heal in 6 weeks.
  • Protect your skin from ultraviolet radiation in strong sunlight:
    • Avoid exposure to the sun.
    • Cover up with loose fitting but closely woven clothes.
    • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and protective sunglasses.
    • Use a high SPF sunscreen (15 or more). When choosing a sunscreen, look for one which protects against UVB, has the UVA circle logo and/or 4 or 5 UVA stars to protect against UVA. Apply plenty of sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun and reapply every 2 hours and straight after swimming and towel-drying.
    • Avoid tanning under sunlamps.

Further information

  • Your GP.
  • Clinical nurse specialist at The Christie on 0161 918 7587.
  • Macmillan Cancer Support has information on all aspects of cancer. Lines answered by specialist nurses. A freephone is available on 0808 808 0000 and is open Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm,
  • British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons

Last updated: September 2023