What Happens If Actinic Keratosis Is Left Untreated?

What is actinic keratosis?

Actinic keratosis (also known as solar keratosis) is damage to the skin caused by exposure to sunlight. The condition is characterised by patches of rough, raised, scaly, discoloured or itchy skin, with lesions ranging in size from the tiny (just little nodules or bumps) to about an inch in diameter. Actinic keratoses can develop singly or in clusters, with some people finding they have quite widespread areas of sun damage.

The lesions tend to develop on skin that’s been exposed to the sun, with scalps, forearms, the back of hands, foreheads, shins, necks and shoulders particularly affected. 

Who’s at risk of developing actinic keratoses?

Some people are more at risk than others, so anyone in the following categories should be aware of the possibility of developing the condition:

  • Over 40
  • Balding
  • Living in a hot climate
  • Fair-skinned
  • Easily sunburnt
  • Worked outside a lot
  • Had prolonged exposure to sun or sunbeds
  • Weakened immune systems

Untreated actinic keratosis

Most actinic keratosis isn’t serious, even if it looks or feels irritating. Some incidents of actinic keratosis go away completely on their own, without needing treatment. Some go away and then recur. Some can be much more persistent, and end up getting worse.

The real problem with the condition is that 5-10% of actinic keratoses develop into skin cancer, and it’s impossible to tell which are safe to leave, and which need urgent treatment.

The minority (about 5-10%) of actinic keratoses that do turn cancerous tend to develop into a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), the second most common form of skin cancer. SCC can be damaging, even fatal, and the earlier it’s caught and treated, the better the prognosis.

Actinic keratosis doesn’t turn into melanoma, which is a much more deadly type of skin cancer, but people who have actinic keratosis are also at heightened risk from melanoma because of their sun exposure and skin damage.

It’s important to be aware of any suspected sun damage or changes to the way your skin looks or feels, and get it checked out by a doctor.

Looking after your skin

Prevention is much better than cure as far as sun damage is concerned, although there can be a considerable lag between sun damage and developing actinic keratosis or skin cancer: you’re basically protecting your skin today against consequences a decade or more down the line. Sun protection means using a high factor sunscreen, avoiding sun exposure during the heat of the day, not using tanning beds, and wearing protective hats and clothing (golfers who wear one glove are more likely to get actinic keratoses on their uncovered hand).

Although actinic keratosis isn’t something you can treat with emollients, moisturising your skin with intensive, non-irritant creams or salves can help keep skin in good, healthy condition before and after any kind of treatment. 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!

Recommended products:

Balmonds Skin Salvation
with hemp and beeswax

Balmonds Daily Moisturising Cream
with shea butter and calendula

Skin Conditions

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