Skip to main content
Read about

Best office procedures for Actinic Keratosis

Tooltip Icon.
Written by Andrew Le, MD.
Medically reviewed by
Clinical Physician Assistant, Summit Health
Last updated June 13, 2024

Try our free symptom checker

Get a thorough self-assessment before your visit to the doctor.

What is actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis, also known as solar keratosis, is a precancerous skin lesion that develops due to prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or indoor tanning. The condition is characterized by the proliferation of several atypical keratinocytes, leading to the formation of rough, scaly patches on the skin [1].

The prevalence of AK varies globally, ranging from 40-60% in fair-skinned populations living in sunny regions to 20% in the United States. Risk factors for developing AK include fair skin, light hair and eye color, chronic sun exposure, older age, immunosuppression, and residing in regions closer to the equator [1, 3, 4]. Individuals with outdoor occupations or hobbies and bald males are at an increased risk of developing extensive actinic damage [3, 5].

While not all AK lesions progress to skin cancer, the condition is considered a precursor to SCC, with a 5-10% risk of progression if left untreated [1]. Factors indicating a higher risk of malignant transformation include a tender, thickened, ulcerated, or enlarging appearance of the lesion [1]. Patients with multiple AK lesions (more than 10) have an estimated 10-15% chance of developing SCC at some stage [1].

The pathogenesis of AK involves a complex interplay of UV-induced DNA damage, immunosuppression, and alterations in cellular signaling pathways [6]. Chronic UV exposure leads to the accumulation of mutations in key genes responsible for regulating cell growth and differentiation, such as p53 and p16 [6]. These genetic changes, along with the suppression of the skin's immune response, contribute to the development of atypical keratinocytes and the formation of AK lesions [6].

Common symptoms of actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis typically presents as rough, dry, or scaly patches on sun-exposed areas of the skin. These lesions can be flat or slightly raised, with a diameter usually less than 1 inch (2.5 cm). The color of AK lesions can vary, appearing red, tan, pink, white, brown, or a combination of these colors [7].

Other common symptoms of AK include:

  • A gritty or sandpaper-like texture when touched
  • Gradual development over time, with most lesions first appearing in people over the age of 40
  • Actinic cheilitis, a variant of AK that appears on the lower lip, causing a dry, cracked, or scaly appearance
  • A "strawberry pattern" on dermoscopy for non-pigmented facial AK, characterized by fine wavy vessels, scale, microerosions, and a "strawberry" appearance [20]
  • A "rhomboidal pattern" on dermoscopy for pigmented AK lesions, along with scale, white globules, and a "jelly sign" [20]

It is important to note that the appearance of AK can vary, and the lesions may be difficult to distinguish from other skin conditions or early skin cancers. Regular skin examinations by a dermatologist are recommended to detect and properly diagnose AK [1].

In some cases, AK lesions may be asymptomatic, making it crucial for individuals with a history of sun exposure to undergo periodic skin checks. Early detection and treatment of AK can help prevent progression to SCC and minimize the risk of complications [1].

Patients should be educated on the importance of self-examination and reporting any new or changing skin lesions to their healthcare provider. They should also be advised to protect their skin from further sun damage by using broad-spectrum sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and seeking shade during peak UV hours [1].

Combination and sequential therapies for actinic keratosis

In some cases, a combination of lesion-directed and field-directed therapies or the sequential use of field therapy followed by lesion-targeted therapy can be effective for managing AK [1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 11].

For example, cryotherapy may be used to treat individual lesions, followed by a course of topical medication to address an entire sun-damaged field or skin area [1, 2, 3, 4].

Combining PDT with topical medications or laser resurfacing has been shown to enhance outcomes. For example, pretreating the skin with a fractional laser before PDT can increase the penetration of the photosensitizer and improve the efficacy of the procedure. [16, 17]

It is also important to note that AK is a chronic condition, and patients may require ongoing monitoring and periodic retreatment to manage new or recurrent lesions. Protecting your skin from the sun and doing regular skin examinations are key to preventing the development of new AK lesions and detecting any potential progression to skin cancer. [1]

Post-procedure safety and follow-up

To ensure the best possible outcome of an in-office procedure and minimize potential complications, take these safety considerations and be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions for follow-up care.

In addition to proper follow-up care, ongoing monitoring is essential for managing actinic keratosis and reducing the risk of progression to skin cancer. Regular skin examinations and preventive strategies play crucial roles in the long-term management of AK patients.

  • Sun protection: Patients with AK should be advised to limit sun exposure and use sun protection measures such as sunscreen, protective clothing, and staying in the shade when outdoors [1].
  • Topical medication use: Patients using topical AK treatments should be cautioned against applying hydrocortisone or other corticosteroid medications, as these can interfere with the effectiveness of the AK treatment [1, 5].
  • Post-treatment care: Patients may experience redness, swelling, blistering, or peeling after certain AK treatments. Healthcare providers should advise patients on proper skin care and sun protection during the healing process [1].
  • Skin monitoring: Patients with AK have an increased risk of developing additional AK lesions or progressing to skin cancer. Regular skin examinations by a healthcare provider are recommended to monitor for new or changing lesions [1].
  • Immunosuppression: Patients who are immunosuppressed, such as those with organ transplants or certain medical conditions, may be at higher risk for developing AK and should be closely monitored [1, 6, 8, 9].
  • Occupational exposure: Individuals with high occupational UV exposure, such as outdoor workers, should be educated on the importance of sun protection and regular skin examinations [1-4, 7].
  • Patient education: Healthcare providers should ensure patients understand the nature of AK, the importance of treatment, and the need for ongoing skin monitoring and sun protection to prevent progression to skin cancer [1].


  1. Berman, B., Bienstock, L., Kuritzky, L., Nouri, K., & Oestreicher, J. H. (2006). Actinic keratoses: sequelae and treatments. The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 54(1), S79-S87.
  2. Schlager, J. G., Babar, A., Khosravi, H., Zaremba, A., Eichenfield, L. F., & Anderson, R. R. (2021). Cryotherapy for actinic keratosis: A systematic literature review. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 84(6), 1639-1647.
  3. Lebwohl, M. (2003). Actinic keratosis: epidemiology and progression to squamous cell carcinoma. British Journal of Dermatology, 149(Suppl 66), 31-33.
  4. Neale, R. E., Damian, D. L., Veierod, M. B., & Green, A. C. (2018). Prevalence of actinic keratosis and its risk factors in a representative sample of the Dutch, French and Australian populations. British Journal of Dermatology, 178(5), 1191-1198.
  5. Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Actinic Keratosis. Retrieved from
  6. Zalaudek, I., Giacomel, J., Argenziano, G., Hofmann-Wellenhof, R., Micantonio, T., Di Stefani, A., Oliviero, M., Rabinovitz, H., & Soyer, H. P. (2006). Dermatoscopy of facial nonpigmented actinic keratosis. British Journal of Dermatology, 155(5), 951-956.
  7. Medscape. (n.d.). What is the prevalence of actinic keratosis (AK)? Retrieved from
  8. The Skin Cancer Foundation. (n.d.). Actinic Keratosis. Retrieved from
  9. Casari, A., Chester, J., & Pellacani, G. (2018). Actinic Keratosis and Non-Invasive Diagnostic Techniques: An Update. Biomedicines, 6(1), 8.
  10. StatPearls. (2022). Actinic Keratosis. Retrieved from
  11. Casari, A., Chester, J., & Pellacani, G. (2018). Actinic Keratosis and Non-Invasive Diagnostic Techniques: An Update. Biomedicines, 6(1), 8.
  12. Ulrich, M., Maltusch, A., Röwert-Huber, J., Gonzalez, S., Sterry, W., Stockfleth, E., & Astner, S. (2007). Actinic keratoses: non-invasive diagnosis for field cancerisation. British Journal of Dermatology, 156(s3), 13-17.
  13. Guitera, P., Pellacani, G., Crotty, K. A., Scolyer, R. A., Li, L. X., Bassoli, S., Vinceti, M., Rabinovitz, H., Longo, C., & Menzies, S. W. (2010). The impact of in vivo reflectance confocal microscopy on the diagnostic accuracy of lentigo maligna and equivocal pigmented and nonpigmented macules of the face. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 130(8), 2080-2091.
  14. Lacour, J. P., Ulrich, C., Gilaberte, Y., von Kiedrowski, R., Sidoroff, A., Synnerstad, I., ... & Szeimies, R. M. (2015). Daylight photodynamic therapy with methyl aminolevulinate cream is effective and nearly painless in treating actinic keratoses: a randomised, controlled, double-blind study. British Journal of Dermatology, 172(4), 1021-1027.
  15. Rubel, D. M., Spelman, L., Murrell, D. F., See, J. A., Hewitt, D., Foley, P., & Bosc, C. (2014). Daylight photodynamic therapy with methyl aminolevulinate cream as a convenient, similarly effective, nearly painless alternative to conventional photodynamic therapy in actinic keratosis treatment: a randomized controlled trial. British Journal of Dermatology, 171(5), 1164-1171.
  16. Hillen, U., Gholam, P., Berthold, M., & Gerber, P. A. (2020). Microwave treatment for actinic keratosis: a prospective, multicenter, open-label, single-arm study. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 34(1), 115-121.
  17. Blauvelt, A., Kempers, S., Lain, E., Schlesinger, T., Jarratt, M., Meng, X., ... & Bourcier, M. (2021). Phase 3 trials of tirbanibulin ointment for actinic keratosis. New England Journal of Medicine, 384(6), 512-520.
  18. Stockfleth, E., Peris, K., Guillen, C., Cerio, R., Basset-Seguin, N., & Garbe, C. (2021). Efficacy and safety of tirbanibulin ointment versus vehicle for the treatment of actinic keratosis: results from two phase 3 trials. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 84(5), 1165-1172.
  19. Salah, M., Shalaby, S., Hegazy, R. A., & Abdel Halim, D. M. (2019). Dermoscopic Monitoring for Treatment and Follow-Up of Actinic Keratosis With 5-Aminolaevulinic Acid Photodynamic Therapy. Dermatologic Surgery, 45(1), 102-107.
  20. Oster, S. E., Oster, A. J., Schöning, V., Ebert, A. D., Thoms, K. M., & Reichrath, J. (2021). Treatment Motivations and Expectations in Patients with Actinic Keratosis: A German-Wide Multicenter, Cross-Sectional Trial. Cancers, 13(12), 2944.
  21. Dirschka, T., Gupta, G., Micali, G., Stockfleth, E., Basset-Seguin, N., Del Marmol, V., ... & Weiss, C. (2017). Real-world approach to actinic keratosis management: practical treatment algorithm for office-based dermatology. Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 28(5), 431-442.

[a] ,

Hi there, can you possibly regenerate these two to get a proc-con list? They were essentially left out of this article, and I'd like to get the citations and a more thorough understanding up them as AK in-office treatments.

_Assigned to andrew.dumit@gmail.com_

⚡️ Powered by AI

Get personalized answers to your health questions

Our clinically-backed AI will ask you questions and provide an answer specific to your unique health situation.

Share your story
Once your story receives approval from our editors, it will exist on Buoy as a helpful resource for others who may experience something similar.
The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Clinical Physician Assistant, Summit Health
Jeff brings to Buoy 20 years of clinical experience as a physician assistant in urgent care and internal medicine. He also has extensive experience in healthcare administration, most recently as developer and director of an urgent care center. While completing his doctorate in Health Sciences at A.T. Still University, Jeff studied population health, healthcare systems, and evidence-based medicine....
Read full bio

Was this article helpful?

Tooltip Icon.