Actinic keratoses (AKs)

Actinic keratoses (AKs) are skin lesions caused by years of exposure to ultraviolet light (the sun). AKs usually appear as rough, scaly patches and may be as small as a pinpoint up to several inches in diameter. They are commonly found on the face, scalp, neck, ears, hands, and forearms. 

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AKs may appear as:

  • Rough, scaly patches
  • Bumps
  • Mottled colored areas
  • Cutaneous horns
  • Yellow colored
  • Brown colored
  • Red or pink colored
  • Violet colored
  • Smooth textured
  • Wrinkled
  • Furrowed


Actinic keratoses form when 90 percent of the epidermal cells in an area of skin change size, shape, and/or organization. The primary cause is prolonged sun exposure over many years’ time.

Those at greater risk of developing AKs include individuals who:

  • Are over the age of 40
  • Reside in a sunny location
  • Have a history of sun exposure, sun tanning, and/or sunburns
  • Have fair skin, light eyes, and fair hair (blonde or red)
  • Have a personal history of AKs or skin cancer
  • Have a weakened immune system


Actinic keratoses can be precancerous or may signal the beginning of skin cancer. Since they may develop into squamous cell carcinomas, a biopsy is frequently performed to determine whether cancer is present. If you believe you may have an actinic keratosis, it is recommended that you visit your dermatologist as soon as possible.

Treatment options include:

  • Medications (various creams and gels): especially useful for treating an area with several AKs
  • Cryotherapy (freezing): a very common treatment that can be performed in just a few minutes in your dermatologist’s office
  • Electrosurgery and curettage: surgical scraping, cutting, and destroying of the affected tissue
  • Photodynamic therapy: a special light treatment that can destroy AKs