Is Actinic Keratosis Skin Cancer?

Is Actinic Keratosis Skin Cancer? | Spectrum Dermatology, Scottsdale

Is Actinic Keratosis Skin Cancer?

There are many different types of skin cancer, with melanoma being the deadliest. Spectrum Dermatology encourages everyone, regardless of how much melanin a person produces or the number of moles on their body, to schedule a mole check annually. This is not only the best way to catch skin cancer early (which means an easier treatment), but it’s also an opportunity to learn more about skin cancer and other potentially dangerous skin conditions like actinic keratosis (AK).

Actinic keratosis is not skin cancer, but rather the most common type of pre-cancer. Just like skin cancer, AK is caused by damage from UV rays either directly from the sun or from indoor tanning beds. It’s also known as solar keratosis, acknowledging the role that the sun has in causing this condition. Most patients with AK have a history of long-term UV radiation exposure. What does this mean? If you have one area on your skin that is diagnosed with AK, you’re likely to develop more in the future. It’s not uncommon for patients to develop several AK lesions during their lifetime.

When Does Actinic Keratosis Turn Cancerous?

It is impossible to guess when actinic keratosis will turn into cancer, but if and when that does occur, these lesions develop into squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). SCC is a common types of skin cancer, and although it is not as deadly as melanoma it is still skin cancer that requires quick treatment to ensure your well-being. Fortunately, if you see your dermatologist regularly and get diagnosed with AK, you can rest assured that removing it is quick and simple—all that is typically necessary is an excision of the lesion and laboratory testing to make sure that the sample border lacks any abnormal cells.

Over 58 million people in the U.S. alone have at least one AK lesion on their body. This high number is due to various reasons, such as the fact that a lot of people don’t see their dermatologist unless something looks severely wrong. AK can often present as a small, crusty, dry patch of skin. These lesions can be virtually any color, including flesh-toned, red, brown, or white. Some patches of AK are so small and visually blend in to the skin so well that it’s easier to find them by touch rather than sight. This is yet another reason why you should see a dermatologist regularly. These skin experts can spot potentially dangerous lesions much better than anyone else, especially since AK can appear anywhere on the body—including places that are impossible for you to see (such as the scalp).

The Reality of Actinic Keratosis

Unsurprisingly, AK lesions usually appear on skin that is regularly exposed to the sun. This means the head, neck, forearms, hands, and shoulders. There is also a specific type of AK called actinic cheilitis that is exclusively found on the lower lip. If you think you may have AK, don’t panic, but do book an appointment with your dermatologist. The good news is that only 5 – 10 percent of AK lesions have the potential to turn into cancer, but you still shouldn’t wait to find out if you fall into this category. Removing and testing AK lesions is very fast, requiring an in-office appointment of no more than one hour.

However, you also want to keep in mind that if you do have even one diagnosed AK spot, that increases your odds of developing all types of skin cancer during your lifetime. Remember, a diagnosis of AK is a sign that you’ve been exposed to unprotected UV damage. Skin cancer is exclusively caused by UV damage, so think of actinic keratosis as a warning sign. As we know, AK lesions can appear anywhere on the body, but they typically are most aggressive when they are located on the head or neck.

What to Do About Actinic Keratosis

Seeing your dermatologist right away when you notice anything “off” about your skin is a must, as is keeping those annual skin check appointments. It’s also never too late to improve your sun protection regimen. Talk to your doctor about the best recommended sunscreens or sun blocks for you, which should be medical-grade, broadband, water resistant, at least 30 SPF, and reapplied every 75 minutes when you’re exposed to UV rays.

Book your appointment with Spectrum Dermatology online today to schedule a mole check or for any suspicious-looking lesion.