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Actinic keratoses

Actinic keratoses, or solar keratoses, are caused by sun damage. Discover the symptoms, potential risks and treatment.

What are actinic keratoses?

Actinic keratoses (often called solar keratoses) are small, scaly patches of skin caused by sun damage. The patches do not usually cause any symptoms – you may not even be aware you have them for a while. But they’re important to keep on top of as they occasionally go on to develop into skin cancer.

Actinic keratoses are more common in:

  • People with fair skin
  • People with a history of sunburn
  • People who have spent long periods of time outdoors in the sun - either for work or recreation
  • People who have lived in the tropics
  • People who have used sunbeds
  • People with a weakened immune system

Symptoms of actinic keratoses

  • Scaly patches of skin
  • Often red in colour (but can vary from white to pale pink or darker brown)
  • Rough to the touch
  • Sometimes, itchiness

Actinic keratosis can appear on its own or a few patches can appear together. They normally come up on areas of the skin that have been exposed to sunlight regularly.

It’s often found on the face, ears, upper chest, arms and lower legs. In men, particularly those who have started experiencing some hair loss, the top of the scalp is a common place for actinic keratosis.

Actinic keratoses treatment

Actinic keratoses can be effectively treated with topical creams that a GP can prescribe. There are a few different types of cream available, all of which are applied directly to the skin lesion. Actinic keratosis treatments are usually applied daily for between a few weeks to a few months.

Other treatments include:

  • Cryotherapy (freezing treatment)
  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT) which involves the application of a cream and subsequent light therapy
  • Surgery to completely excise the lesion

If you’ve already developed actinic keratoses, it’s important to protect your skin as much as possible from further sun damage. Wear a high SPF sunscreen whenever you go out in the sun, wear a hat to protect your face and scalp, and keep areas of your skin where actinic keratoses have developed previously covered.

When to see a GP

  • If an actinic keratosis has been present for a few months without resolving on its own
  • If an actinic keratosis has changed – become larger, tender, ulcerated, started bleeding or formed a lump
Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi