Actinic Keratosis

Do you have a rough, dry patch of skin that feels like sandpaper? If it doesn’t seem to go away, no matter how much you moisturize, it might be actinic keratosis. Often seeming like a harmless skin condition, actinic keratosis has the potential of turning into a more serious form of skin cancer


This is why it’s important to learn more about it, such as what it looks like and how it’s treated. Read our actinic keratosis guide below and make sure to visit a board-certified dermatologist for a professional diagnosis and treatment plan when necessary.

What is Actinic Keratosis (AK)?


Actinic keratosis (AK), also known as solar keratosis, is a precancerous skin condition thought to be caused by excessive, unprotected exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, such as from the sun or tanning beds. 


While usually harmless, AKs pose a small risk of turning into squamous cell carcinoma (a skin cancer), which is why we always recommend visiting an experienced dermatologist for treatment if you believe you have actinic keratosis.

Actinic Keratosis (AK) FAQs


Learn more about this precancerous skin condition by reading our answers to frequently asked questions about actinic keratosis (AK) below. 

What does actinic keratosis look like?

Since actinic keratosis has a small risk of turning into squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), it’s important to know its warning signs and symptoms. Actinic keratosis most often shows up as small, scaly spots or dry, crusty patches on the skin. 


However, AKs are usually easier to feel, rather than see, as the skin is often raised and has a rough texture. Use this quick guide below on how to spot AK: 


  • Texture: rough, crusty, scaly, or sandpaper-like texture that can be flat or raised. 
  • Skin Color: can be red, pink, skin-colored, or gray. 
  • Size: this varies, as it can be a small spot (pencil eraser sized) or a larger (quarter-sized) patch. 


Additionally, actinic keratosis typically shows up on sun-exposed areas of the skin, like the scalp, face, ears, lips, neck, forearms, and back of hands. So make sure to check these locations on your body regularly.

Is actinic keratosis painful?

Actinic keratosis isn’t usually painful, but it can feel tender or slightly sore to the touch. Additionally, AKs can sometimes be itchy, may burn or sting, and stick to certain clothing, which can be uncomfortable.

How is actinic keratosis diagnosed?

Diagnosing actinic keratosis is usually a straightforward process. AK has relatively distinct features and is one of the most common skin conditions diagnosed by dermatologists today. 


Thus, an experienced board-certified dermatologist can often diagnose AK simply by looking at the affected area. Additionally, if there’s any doubt, your doctor may do other tests, such as a skin biopsy.

What are the treatment options for actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis treatment depends on a few factors your dermatologist will take into account: the amount of AK spots, their location, the severity, previous skin cancer history, and any other medication conditions you may have. 


After those factors are taken into consideration, your dermatologist or doctor will likely use one of the following treatments for actinic keratosis: 


  • Cryotherapy – Also known as freezing the area, liquid nitrogen is applied directly to each individual lesion to destroy the precancerous cells. 
  • Topical Treatments – Applied directly to the skin to treat affected areas. Most often used for patients with widespread AKs. 
  • Photodynamic Therapy – Uses a light-sensitizing topical agent followed by a blue or red light to kill cancer cells. 


For more information on actinic keratosis treatment, get in touch with our team of board-certified dermatologists today. 

Is actinic keratosis precancerous?

Yes, actinic keratosis is thought to be a precancerous skin condition, which means the abnormal skin lesions are benign. That said, around 5-10% of AKs develop into squamous cell carcinoma skin cancer, which is why it’s important to diagnose and treat actinic keratosis as soon as possible.

Photos of Actinic Keratosis


Interested in seeing photos of what actinic keratosis might look like? Use our photo guide below to better understand how AKs can show up on the skin.

Find Board-Certified Diagnosis & Treatment for Actinic Keratosis (AK) at Cumberland Skin


If you think you might have actinic keratosis, it’s time to make an appointment with an experienced dermatologist today. At Cumberland Skin, our dermatologists are experts in accurately diagnosing the condition and finding the best possible treatment plan for your unique situation. Get in touch with us today and schedule an appointment online or call 615-449-5771 for our Lebanon office, at 615-964-5941 for our Hermitage office, or at 615-824-7491 for our Hendersonville office.