Actinic Keratoses and Precancers


Actinic keratoses are precancerous skin growths caused by sun exposure over time. They often feel rough like sandpaper and can appear in any sun-exposed area, including your scalp, hands, face, ears, arms, neck and shoulders. If left untreated, a small percentage of actinic keratoses may develop into a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Usually, a doctor can diagnose these growths during a skin exam, though occasionally a biopsy is necessary.


Frequent or intense exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun or tanning beds causes most actinic keratoses. 

Other Risk Factors

  • Age 40 or older.
  • Fair complexion.
  • Light-colored eyes.
  • Blond or red hair.
  • Tendency to freckle or sunburn.
  • Contact with substances that contain coal or tar.
  • History of blistering sunburns.

Note: Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get actinic keratoses, and many people who get this precancer may not have any known risk factors.


  • Areas of skin that itch or burn.
  • Scaly, dry, reddish patches.
  • Lips that feel constantly dry.


  • Limit your time in the sun and avoid the midday rays (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
  • Use a generous amount of water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher.
  • Avoid tanning beds and sun lamps.
  • Wear sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats whenever possible.
  • Check your skin regularly for lumps, bumps or marks.
  • Schedule regular skin-cancer screenings with your dermatologist.

Treatment Options

  • Cryotherapy. The most common and effective treatment option, cryotherapy involves using liquid nitrogen to destroy visible actinic keratoses. Healing after this simple procedure takes only a week or two, and afterward a small white mark may remain.
  • Electrodesiccation and Curettage. This option carefully removes actinic keratoses with an instrument referred to as a curette. After this process, your dermatologist may take extra measures to remove damaged tissue. New, healthy skin gradually appears.
  • Topical Chemotherapy. Topical chemotherapy is applied to the affected areas of the skin. This may cause temporary redness, crusting or swelling until the healthy skin surfaces.
  • Topical Immunotherapy. Topical immunotherapy consists of a cream which treats actinic keratoses by boosting your body’s immune system to shed the diseased skin cells. Usually, it is applied at home for several weeks at a time. Temporary redness and swelling are possible.
  • Chemical Peeling. This in-office, noninvasive procedure involves exfoliating the top layer of skin.

Monthly skin-cancer self-examinations are important precautionary measures, but nothing can replace a complete skin exam by your doctor. The medical professionals at Pensacola Dermatology can diagnose any skin-related issues, including squamous cell carcinoma. Schedule an appointment with Pensacola Dermatology so we can address your individual needs.


Actinic Keratosis | American Academy of Dermatology. 2018. Aad.Org. Accessed December 28 2018.

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