It's the most common form of skin cancer, but most of us have never heard of it. A keratosis is a growth on the skin, and an actinic keratosis is a growth on the skin that is activated by the sun. Actinic keratoses (the plural of actinic keratosis) are formed in summer sun but usually manifest themselves in winter when the skin dries out. And left unchecked, they can grow from barely noticeable blemishes to aggressive squamous cell carcinomas, capable of spreading throughout the body.
So how do you recognize actinic keratoses? Typically, you can feel them before you see them. There may be a tiny patch of itchy, scaly, dry skin that could be caused by any number of conditions that are not cancer. Then this patch of skin becomes elevated, then gritty. At first it may be the same color as adjacent skin, but later it becomes pink or red or bleeds. Or it may just feel like sandpaper. Older people sometimes develop “horns" of sun-damaged skin.
What sunlight, more specifically, UV-A light, does to cause actinic keratosis is to trigger a switch of the G and C bases (of the A-G-C-T) of the DNA in the skin. This “turns off" the gene that repairs sun damage and prevents skin cancer. Skin cells that lying flat on the skin usually just die and get sloughed off even if they become cancerous. Skin cells lining a hair shaft or a pore, however, stay put and can allow the genetic damage to accumulate.
In North America, about one person in eight develops this precancerous condition of the skin at some point in life. The fairer the skin, the greater the risk of this particular kind of skin damage. People who have had Epstein-Barr virus are at greater risk, as are people who have had psoriasis treated with psoralen.
The good news about this condition is, it develops slowly. If you notice these subtle changes in your skin, you don't have to run to the emergency room. It's enough to ask your doctor about it at your annual or semiannual checkup, assuming you have not let the lesions go unchecked for a number of years. And in the meantime, you can slow the development of actinic pre-cancer with antioxidant therapies.
Read Skin Cancer 101: Antioxidants & Actinic Keratosis . Robert Rister is the author or co-author of nine books on natural health.