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Golfing. Gardening. Swimming.
Many of our favorite activities take place out in the sunshine. And while sunny days are the best backdrop for fond memories, our skin has a different type of memory. Meaning that repeated sun exposure on vulnerable areas like the ears, nose, forehead, and hands can cause skin damage, including actinic damage.
Actinic Keratosis is one of the most common skin conditions in middle-aged adults. So, is it something to worry about? Is it benign? And what does actinic keratosis look like?
And as leaders in sun protection, it’s our mission to help you understand the causes and symptoms of actinic keratosis. We’ve teamed up with three leading dermatologists to share guidance that you can depend on:
Dr. Susana Puig
World-renowned dermatologist in the field of diagnosis and treatment of melanoma and skin cancer. Professor at the University of Barcelona.
Dr. Caroline Robinson
Chicago-based, board-certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist with subspecialty expertise in alopecia, preventative skincare, and ethnic skin dermatology.
Dr. Luke Maxfield
Board-certified dermatologist who served on the Dermatology in Review advisory board and is published in over 15 medical journals.
Read on for expert advice on what you should know about actinic damage and how you can help prevent and repair it.
What is actinic keratosis or actinic damage?
Actinic keratosis, also known as solar keratosis, is a type of sun damage to the skin. The good news? It’s not skin cancer in and of itself and is typically benign. However, around 10% of actinic keratoses will turn into skin cancer, so it’s important to follow a treatment plan with your dermatologist.
At least 90% of actinic keratoses are benign — meaning they will not turn into cancer.
What causes actinic keratosis? Short answer: the sun. AKs are the accumulation of cell damage due to repeated exposure to solar radiation. Usually presenting as a small, scaly skin patch that’s not going away, actinic keratosis is commonly found on vulnerable areas like the nose, ears, cheeks, or a bald scalp.
They’re a form of precancerous growth (emphasis on the pre-). Meaning that actinic keratosis again, are not cancerous lesions, but some turn into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. (Source) And this non-melanoma skin cancer can be invasive and dangerous to your health.
While medical experts have contributed to and fact-checked this article, there are lots of additional sources of data on actinic keratosis available. Turn to these foundations for the latest information:
What does actinic keratosis look like?
AKs are often easy to miss. They tend to start off as a patch of rough or scaly skin, with a pink or red color. But keep in mind that they can present differently in different people.
Here’s what to look out for and where:
- Face & scalp: Many actinic keratoses show up on the face and bald scalp as flaky off-color patches.
- Backs of hands: This area gets a lot of unprotected time in the sun, making it a target for AKs.
- Lips: A lasting white patch on the lips that’s rough to the touch could potentially be an actinic keratosis (and should be checked by your dermatologist).
- Varied shapes, textures, and sizes: Actinic keratoses can range in shape, size, and color from white, to brown, pink, and red. They can often be mistaken for warts or sun spots. However, a more distinguishing sign of an AK is a rough texture or scaly, flaky appearance.
What are the risk factors for actinic keratosis?
A common skin condition in adults ages 55 and over, around 58 million Americans are affected by AKs. (Source) No matter your age, anyone who’s had repeated, unprotected sun exposure could develop one or more of these precancerous lesions. But the likelihood increases in those who:
- Have lighter skin tones
- Spend many hours in the sun (for leisure or for occupation)
- Use or have used tanning beds
- Are 40 years of age or older
How can I help prevent actinic keratosis?
Step 1: Help reduce your risk by protecting yourself from the sun
Here’s the good part: you can take proven steps to reduce the risk of actinic keratoses and skin cancer. And the easiest and most effective thing you can do is to use sun protection, always.
“Daily protection from the sun helps us minimize the risk of skin cancer.”
Dr. Susana Puig
Here are some tips to get you started:
✅ Avoid lengthy sun exposure during midday hours, when solar radiation is stronger. Tip: The smaller your shadow is, the stronger the sun’s radiation.
✅ Always use sunscreen on exposed skin. For proper protection, use a high SPF broad spectrum sunscreen. Apply it generously about 15 minutes before exposure, and reapply at least every 2 hours.
✅ Use other physical protective measures such as sunglasses, umbrellas, hats, or clothing.
✅ Avoid sunburn: Sunburn is an immediate manifestation of skin damage. Repeated damage may lead to AKs and other precancerous or cancerous skin conditions.
Wondering how much sunscreen to apply? Or which kind? Dr. Robinson shares, “(As for facial sunscreen,) Eryfotona Actinica. It’s 100% mineral and ultralight — I recommend it to all my patients to protect and help repair their skin.”
Dr. Susana Puig echoes the importance of applying sunscreen the right way, “We must apply a sufficient amount of product and distribute it correctly.” That means paying extra attention to those easy-to-miss and AK-vulnerable spots like your ears, nose, and backs of your hands.
Step 2: Know what to look for and perform a self-examination
While self-exams can’t diagnose actinic keratosis or replace your yearly visit to the dermatologist, they can help you be proactive.
Make sure to keep track of any new patches or flaky areas on the skin, noting any shift in size, shape, or color. Pay attention to skin changes such as a change in a freckle or skin pigmentation.
As you track the changes in your skin, take pictures on your cell phone and keep notes. That way, you’ll be better prepared to discuss any concerns with your dermatologist when your appointment comes around.
How can I help repair or treat actinic keratosis?
The first step: get your dermatologist involved. It’s a good idea for everyone to check in with their dermatologist once a year, and people with skin cancer risk factors might need more frequent skin exams.
If you’re diagnosed with actinic keratosis at one of these checkups, rest assured that there are a variety of treatment options. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, your doctor will likely present multiple options like cryosurgery, laser surgery, curettage and desiccation, chemical peels, and topical treatments.
It’s especially important to schedule a skin examination if you suspect a skin abnormality — such as off-pink flaky lesions that do not heal (particularly on the head and neck). Make sure to mention these concerns during your appointment with the dermatologist.
Sunscreen helps prevent the damaging effects of solar radiation. But did you know that certain formulas can actually help repair damage, too?
Dr. Maxfield explains, “ISDIN Eryfotona sunscreens epitomize the idea of a complete product. They provide a truly exceptional defense for the skin, not only through the foundational combination of zinc oxide and antioxidants but also through repairing sun damage with data-driven DNA Repairsomes®.”
Eryfotona Actinica and Ageless contain a natural repair enzyme derived from plankton, known as photolyase, which helps repair the sun damage that your body can’t. And its continued use helps repair past damage.
Reference: 1 Actinic Keratosis (AK). (2022). Yale Medicine. https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/actinic-keratosis 2 The Skin Cancer Foundation. (2023, March 6). Squamous Cell Carcinoma - The Skin Cancer Foundation. https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/squamous-cell-carcinoma/ 3 Venosa, A. (2022). Is Actinic Keratosis Skin Cancer? What You Need to Know About this Common Condition. The Skin Cancer Foundation. https://www.skincancer.org/blog/is-actinic-keratosis-skin-cancer/