What is actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis (AK), sometimes called solar keratosis or senile keratosis, is a pre-cancerous area of thick, scaly, or crusty skin.


Most actinic keratoses appear on the head, neck, forearms and hands, usually on light skin, and most often in older men. 

Actinic keratosis can develop into squamous cell carcinoma, a form of cancer, but that’s rare. Indeed, if shielded from the sun, a good 25% of the spots simply disappear by themselves.

Detecting an actinic keratosis (AK) early gives you the opportunity to treat the lesion and prevent skin cancer before it starts. When diagnosed promptly, almost all actinic keratoses can be successfully removed. Left untreated, some AKs may progress to Squamous cell carcinoma.

Relation to cancer

How rare is conversion to cancer? It’s true that 60% of squamous cell carcinomas develop from actinic keratoses, but the chances of one of your spots turning into one of these carcinomas is extremely small – like a quarter of one percent per year per spot. So it depends on how many spots you have and how many years you’ve got them, but it’s not a large risk.


However, if you are getting solar keratosis spots, you probably should get out of the sun, and go see your dermatologist, who will probably recommend one of several topical treatment options, like imiquimod cream. This is an immune-response modifier, very effective in making the keratoses resolve and go away. Your doctor can also freeze off your spots, with liquid nitrogen. Surprisingly, there’s also a modified form of light treatment that can help. 

If your doctor suspects any cancer, it’s easy to send spots to a laboratory for analysis. 


Treatment is normally effective, and ends the problem. You do remain vulnerable to relapses, though – so continue to stay out of the sun, and keep watching for new spots.

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