Sun exposure and skin damage

Actinic keratosis (also referred to as “solar keratosis”) is caused by sunlight and may be a pre-cursor to skin cancer . It can be found anywhere on the body, but some of the most common sites are those most often exposed to the sun:

  • Face/scalp/lips
  • Forearms and back of hands

Actinic keratoses are often red, scaly lesions that are not always easy to see. They can vary greatly in size, shape and colour, but are usually less than 1cm across with a scaly white surface. However, they can be red, pink, skin coloured, or a combination of these. The lesions might feel rough and sandpapery, which often makes them easier to feel than see, so it is important to Check Your Skin for any changes. Skin changes caused by too much sun are not always limited to a single patch; damage may also appear in the surrounding area (also known as ‘field damage’). Because of this more actinic keratoses may form in the same area.

Recent studies have estimated that between 11 and 25% of over 40s in the northern hemisphere have actinic keratoses.  Anyone can have sun damaged skin but if you are fair skinned burn easily in the sun, use sunbeds or have spent a lot of time outdoors you are at particularly high risk of developing actinic keratoses. People who have a weakened immune system, for example due to organ transplant, are also more at risk.

Actinic keratoses may regress on their own and few may develop into skin cancer.  But it is impossible to tell which lesions have the potential to develop into skin cancer so it is important to check your skin regularly for changes that cause you concern.  If a lesion is large, growing rapidly, red or bleeding then you should see your doctor immediately. Over a 10 year period around 10% of people with multiple lesions of actinic keratoses go on to develop skin cancer.

A study conducted in USA show that approximately 65% percent of the skin cancer type called squamous cell carcinoma cases begin as actinic keratoses, and patients with the condition are almost 7 times more likely to develop any type of skin cancer than people without it.

Preventing sun damage can be done  by reducing the amount of time you spend in the sun, covering up and using a high factor sunscreen (factor 15 or higher) on areas that are difficult to cover. It is also a good idea to Check Your Skin regularly, especially if you think you might be at risk of sun damage. A skin check should only take 3- 5 minutes.
Reducing your risk of sun damage

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