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5 facts you should know about precancerous skin growths

If your dermatologist tells you that you have a precancerous skin growth, it means one thing. Your skin has been badly damaged by the sun, indoor tanning, or both. The good news is that it’s not too late to do something about this damage and protect your health.

To do this, it helps to understand these 5 facts about precancerous skin growths, which your dermatologist may refer to as actinic keratoses (AKs) or solar keratoses.

  1. Treatment can prevent a precancerous skin growth from progressing to skin cancer. Some precancerous skin growths go on to become a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. There’s no way for your dermatologist to know which ones will progress to skin cancer.

    When you get rid of an AK, it cannot go on to become skin cancer.

  2. Treatment can relieve symptoms, such as itching or tenderness. Some AKs feel tender. An AK can also itch or bleed. When you get rid of the AKs, you get rid of the symptoms.

  3. Some people need multiple and repeat treatments. When you think of treating a precancerous spot on your skin, you probably envision going to your dermatologist’s office for a one-time treatment; however, some people need more involved treatment.

    If you have severely sun-damaged skin, you may have many AKs. Some of these AKs, you may be able to feel on your skin but not see. These hidden AKs can feel gritty. Some people say they feel like spots of sandpaper on the skin.

    To treat both the visible and hidden AKs, your dermatologist may recommend that you have more than one type of treatment.

    Your treatment plan many involve going to your dermatologist’s office for a treatment, such as cryosurgery. The goal of cryosurgery is to freeze the skin, so the AK falls off. Another treatment option is a specialized light treatment called photodynamic therapy (PDT). You may also need to apply medication at home.

    By using more than one treatment, you can treat both the visible and hidden AKs. This reduces the amount of time that you need to treat the AKs and reduces your risk of developing skin cancer.

  4. Sun protection delivers big benefits. Many people who have precancerous skin growths are surprised to learn that they need to protect their skin from the sun. They often think that the damage is done, so what’s the point.

    If you have a precancerous skin growth, protecting your skin from the sun offers two big benefits: 1) It helps to prevent the sun from causing further damage to your skin, which could lead to more precancerous growths or skin cancer, and 2) It gives your body a chance to repair some of the damage to your skin.

    If you’re unsure about how to protect your skin, you can learn what to do at Prevent skin cancer.

  5. Lifelong skin cancer exams can be life-saving. Having just one precancerous skin growth means that the sun, indoor tanning, or both have badly damaged your skin. As such, you have an increased risk of developing skin cancer.

    Getting your skin examined by a board-certified dermatologist helps to find precancerous skin growths and skin cancer early when they’re highly treatable.

    Your dermatologist can tell you how often you should come in for a skin exam and how often you should examine your skin at home.

Looks can be deceptive

Precancerous skin growths may look harmless. As you now know, their looks can be deceptive. Following your dermatologist’s recommendations can help protect your skin and your health.

Precancerous skin growths may look harmless

These arrows point to precancerous skin growths that are barely noticeable.

Rough, scaly bumps on this woman's face are actinic keratoses

Related AAD resources

Image 1: Getty Images
Image 2: J Am Acad Dermatol. 2017;76(2):349-50.

Rosen T and Lebwohl MG. “Prevalence and awareness of actinic keratosis: barriers and opportunities.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2013;68(1 Suppl 1):S2-9.

Tolley K, Argenziano G, et al. “Pharmacoeconomic evaluations in the treatment of actinic keratoses.” Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2017;30(2):178-81.

Uhlenhake EE. “Optimal treatment of actinic keratoses.” Clin Interv Aging. 2013;8:29-35.

Last updated: 7/17/23