Actinic Keratosis

Actinic Keratosis


In our youth, it is hard to imagine that we are anything but invincible.  As we age, however, our youthful vitality fades, and our bodies begin to show signs of the adventures we have lived. The part of our body that often reveals the most is our skin.  After years spent outside worshipping the sun, some of what our skin shows may not be flattering and can be a sign of something dangerous.

For many sun seekers, actinic keratosis can begin to develop. This precancerous skin condition generally affects us later in life as a result of cumulative years of sun exposure.  For those with actinic keratosis, the presence of these rough, scaly spots can be painful, itchy, and/or difficult to mask. In addition, actinic keratosis should not be ignored, as it is known to be a precursor to squamous cell skin cancer and a marker for it other types of skin cancer.

What is Actinic Keratosis?

Precancerous skin lesions and actinic keratoses are small, red or flesh coloured, rough, scaly spots.  These common spots appear on sun-exposed areas such as the face, bald spots of the scalp, rim of the ear, arms and/or legs, and back of the hands,. While not skin cancer, these spots may turn into skin cancer; indicating the skin has had too much sun and is primed for skin cancer to develop.


  • Actinic Keratosis  – most common precancer, may be solitary or multiple (“keratoses”), found on sun-exposed areas of the skin (1) 
  • Actinic Cheilitis – on lip, usually lower, dry, scaly, thickened

What are the Causes of Actinic Keratosis?

  • Too much sun

Actinic Keratosis is a very common skin condition, which affects people worldwide. It affects older people and more men than women.  Actinic keratosis is much more prevalent in fair skinned people as their skin tone leaves them much more vulnerable to the sun’s rays. Additionally, people who have undergone treatment with immunosuppressive drugs, such as organ transplant patients are 250 times more likely to develop actinic keratosis.

Who is Affected by Actinic Keratosis?

  • More men than women
  • Fair skin, skin that burns easily, freckled skin (2)
  • Exposure to a lot of sun – work, recreation
  • Over the age of 40 (3)

Related Problems

  • Itchiness, tenderness, bleeding
  • Small number turn into squamous cell skin cancer
  • Increase the risk for other skin cancers, i.e. basal cell and Melanoma

Potential Actinic Keratosis Treatments

With the potential for this skin disorder to develop into skin cancer, it is important to seek the opinion of a dermatologist and, if recommended, undergo treatment.

Note: Certain treatments for medical conditions that are considered to be elective and/or cosmetic are not covered by Medical Services Plan of BC.

If you have sun damaged skin, are unsure about certain lesions that have developed on your skin and/or are seeking actinic keratosis treatment, please make an appointment with one of our doctors.


Patient Resources
Canadian Dermatology Association
American Academy of Dermatology
(1-3)   Canadian Dermatology Association

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