What is actinic keratosis?
Actinic keratosis is a common skin problem, particularly in older people. It’s also known as solar keratosis, which gives a clue about why it happens - ‘solar’ meaning ‘of the sun’. In fact, ‘actinic’ also refers to the sun, as it refers to UV light. Let’s take a look at the connection between sunlight and the skin.
What does an actinic keratosis (AK) look like?
Actinic keratoses tend to be relatively small - sometimes just a bump or spot, but generally less than 2.5cm in diameter. You may notice an AK by feel rather than sight to begin with, and that’s because the little patches tend to have a different texture to surrounding skin; they may feel gritty, rough, irritated or itchy, sometimes scaly or dry. They’re often (though not always) raised, and can look like little wart-like bumps. AK are also noticeable by the difference in colour from your normal skin: AK can be darker brown, red, pink or white, or a variety of colours, depending on your skin colour, where it is and how old it is. They can crust over, bleed and get inflamed.
What causes actinic keratosis?
Actinic keratosis is a condition that affects areas of skin that are exposed to UV light over a long period of time. Usually that means people develop AK on their forehead, scalp, the backs of their hands, lower arms, sometimes lower legs, and the V of an exposed upper chest. It’s caused by the cumulative effect of UV light on skin, which takes place over many years. Anywhere on the body that has some protection from sunlight is much less likely to be affected. In fact, it’s common for long-distance drivers to have AK on the arm that they might hang out of the window, or for golfers to develop AK on the hand that they don’t wear a glove on.
Risk factors for AK
Although anyone can get AK, some people are at increased risk. Risk factors include:
- Being pale skinned
- Having blond or red hair
- Burning easily
- Living for many years in a sunny region
- Working or playing outdoors a lot
- Not using adequate sun protection
- Having freckles
- Being older than 40
- Having a weakened immune system
- Having thinning hair or a bald scalp
- Having a history of using tan beds
Managing actinic keratosis
See our article What Is The Best Treatment For Actinic Keratosis? for more details about preventing and treating actinic keratosis.
Because of its association with skin cancer, AK is definitely something you should get a doctor to look at, rather than treat at home. But moisturising your skin with intensive, non-irritant creams or salves can help keep your skin in good, healthy condition, even if you need medical treatment as well. Natural emollients can help soften and smooth itchy, rough patches, and nourish depleted or damaged skin, and can also help with healing from any procedure to remove AK.
We advise customers not to apply oil-based balms like Skin Salvation to skin exposed to direct sunlight, as the high oil content can cause burning and we don’t add sunscreens to our products. Apply last thing at night instead!
Balmonds Skin Salvation
with hemp and beeswax
Balmonds Cooling Cream
with shea, menthol, aloe vera & lavender
Balmonds Daily Moisturising Cream
with shea butter and calendula
If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
If you or someone you are caring for seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong, call for emergency services straight away. For general medical advice, please contact your healthcare professional, this article does not contain or replace medical advice.
Do not delay getting help if you're worried. Trust your instincts.