How to spot a precancerous growth on your skin

If you have any growths on your skin that look like these, you may have precancerous growth called actinic keratosis (AK).

Where we get precancerous skin growths
Precancerous skin growths develop on skin that’s gotten lots of sun over the years. If you haven’t protected your skin from the sun, you may have precancerous skin growths. Called AKs, these growths usually appear after 40 years of age.
AKs can appear before 40 years of age
If you live in an area that gets intense sunlight all year, such as Florida or Arizona, and haven’t protected your skin from the sun, you may get AKs earlier. AKs also often appear earlier in people who use tanning beds and sun lamps.
What to look for
Signs that you have AKs are often subtle. AKs usually begin as a patch of rough-feeling skin. When rubbed, the rough patch may feel painful. The following slides show you what AKs typically look like.
AKs often form on the face
AKs tend to be dry, scaly, and pink or red patches on the skin.
AKs are common on the backs of the hands
AKs form on skin that’s received lots of sun over the years. This patient’s many age spots and AKs indicate lots of sun exposure. Arrows point to the AKs, which are the reddish pink spots.
AKs may be covered with scale
AKs can appear as white, scaly, wart-like growths on the skin, as seen here on this patient’s hand.
AKs usually develop on the face, hands, or bald scalp
While many AKs are red or pink, some appear as brown spots. This man has a brownish AK.  It’s the spot you see on his nose.
Some AKs look like age spots
These brown patches, which could be mistaken for age spots, are AKs. Unlike age spots, AKs tend to feel rough.
AKs can form on the lip
A white, rough-feeling patch on your lip could be an AK. When an AK forms on the lip, the lips often feel extremely dry and may crack easily. It’s especially important to see a dermatologist if you notice any of these changes to your lip.
An AK can look like a horn
While any AK can turn into a skin cancer, horns are more likely to do so. If you have a horn-like growth on your skin, it’s definitely time to see a dermatologist.
A dermatologist should examine all AKs
If you find anything on your skin that looks (or feels) like an AK, you should see a dermatologist. AKs are precancerous growths, and some turn into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Being under a dermatologist’s care can help you get the treatment you need.

Additional related resources

Find out more about AKs, including how dermatologists diagnose and treat them:

Slide 4: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2017;76(2):249-50.
Slide 5: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74(5):981-1004.
Slide 6 and10: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. J Am Acad Dermatol.2000;42:S8-10.
Slide 7: Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010;62(1):85-95.
Slides 8 and 9: Images used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.
Slide 11: Property of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Duncan KO, Geisse JK, et al. “Epithelial precancerous lesions.” In: Wolff K, Goldsmith LA, et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology in General Medicine (seventh edition). McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2008: 1007-15.

Moy RL, “Clinical presentation of actinic keratoses and squamous cell carcinoma.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2000;42:S8-10.