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Actinic Keratosis Treatment

Reduce Your Risk of Developing Skin Cancer

If you have one or more actinic keratoses (AKs), it’s a sign of skin damage that puts you at a high risk for developing skin cancer. Identifying and treating these precancerous lesions helps you reduce that risk.

Your treatment options depend on how many lesions you have, where they are, your age and overall health. Options include:


Surgical procedures

Surgery is widely used in cases where a person has one or more isolated lesions. There are several ways to remove the skin lesion with surgery, including:

  • Chemical peel: The physician applies a chemical to the face, causing the top skin layers to peel off. New skin generally regrows within a few weeks.
  • Cryosurgery: The physician applies liquid nitrogen to freeze the tissue, which eventually falls off, allowing healthy skin to emerge.
  • Curettage and desiccation: The physician scrapes or shaves off the lesion, then uses heat or a chemical agent to destroy remaining AK cells and stop any bleeding.
  • Laser surgery: The physician applies a laser beam to vaporize the AK lesion.

Topical treatments

Topical creams, gels and solutions are prescribed for use in patients with numerous or widespread actinic keratoses. The physician applies these creams and gels directly to affected areas of the skin to treat visible and invisible lesions with minimal risk of scarring.

Approved medications

Photodynamic therapy

For widespread AKs located on the face and scalp, a topical agent is applied to make the lesion sensitive to light. After allowing a short period of time for absorption, the dermatologist uses a strong red or blue light (both cleared by the FDA) or a pulsed-dye laser or sometimes controlled natural sunlight, which causes a reaction that destroys the AK. After the procedure, patients must strictly avoid sunlight for at least 48 hours, as UV exposure will increase activation of the medication and may cause severe sunburns.  

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is especially effective as a treatment to destroy lesions without harming healthy tissue. 

Combination therapies

Doctors may pair therapies for treatment regimens, including

  • Cryosurgery and PDT
  • Cryosurgery and a topical treatment
  • Topical treatments and PDT

Some of these combination therapies can increase photosensitivity. Be sure to check with your dermatologist and be especially careful about safeguarding your skin from UV rays during and after treatment.

After treatment, perform self-exams and visit your dermatologist at recommended intervals to screen for AKs and check for skin cancers.

Find a dermatologist near you.

Reviewed by:
Leonard H. Goldberg, MD
Mark Lebwohl, MD

Last updated: January 2022

Last updated: July 2024

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