Actinic keratosis: Tips for managing

An actinic keratosis (AK) forms on skin that has been badly damaged by ultraviolet (UV) rays. The sun and indoor tanning expose us to these harmful rays. If you have been diagnosed with AKs, dermatologists recommend the following:

Protect your skin from the sun. By protecting your skin from the sun, you can help prevent new AKs from forming. This also will help make your treatment more effective. Dermatologists offer these tips to their patients who have AKs:

  • Avoid the midday sun. You can do this by scheduling outdoor activities for earlier in the morning (before 10 a.m.) and later in the afternoon (after 2 p.m.).
  • Slather on sunscreen every day — even on cloudy days and in the winter. Apply sunscreen to all skin that clothing will not cover.
3 things your sunscreen must offer:
  1. SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher.
  2. UVA/UVB protection (label may say "broad-spectrum").
  3. Water resistance.
  • Protect your lips. Apply a lip balm that contains sunscreen. The lip balm also should offer an SPF of 30 or greater and UVA/UVB protection.
  • Protect your skin with clothing. Whenever possible wear:
    • A wide-brimmed hat.
    • Long sleeves.
    • Pants.

To see how well your clothes will protect you, hold each garment in front of bright light. If you see light through the cloth, harmful light from the sun can penetrate the cloth. You should select another garment. You also could wear that garment but apply sunscreen first to the skin that the garment will cover.

Do not use tanning beds or other indoor tanning devices. Tanning beds and sun lamps emit UV rays that can be stronger than the rays from the sun. This can cause new AKs.

Check your skin as often as your dermatologist recommends. If you notice a growth on your skin that has any of the following traits, contact your dermatologist right away:

  • Starts to itch or bleed.
  • Becomes noticeably thicker.
  • Remains after treatment.
  • Changes in size, shape, or color.

Keep all appointments with your dermatologist. Left untreated, AKs can turn into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. With early detection and treatment, skin cancer has a high cure rate.

Because AKs develop on skin that has been badly damaged by UV rays, you also have a higher risk for developing other types of skin cancer, including melanoma. Keeping your appointments helps to find skin cancer early when a cure is likely.

Realize that new AKs may form. AKs form on badly damaged skin. Some people will continue to develop new AKs for life, even when they protect their skin from the sun. This does not mean that sun protection and treatment are not working.

Learn more about actinic keratosis:

References:

Bhatia ND. “Medical Management of Actinic Keratoses.” Focus session presented at the 2011 American Academy of Dermatology Summer Academy Meeting: New York City. Aug 2011.

Callen JP, Bickers DR, Moy RL. “Actinic Keratoses.” J Am Acad Dermatol; 1997 Apr;36(4):650-3.

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