What causes actinic keratosis (AK)?

What causes actinic keratosis (AK)? | St. Louis | Missouri | IllinoisActinic keratosis (AK), also called solar keratosis, refers to a scaly, crusty growth which occurs due to damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure.

AK is considered to be a precancerous growth if left untreated. It could develop into skin cancer, most frequently the second most common form of the illness, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

Although only around 10 percent of AKs become malignant, most SSCs initiate as AKs. There is no way to know beforehand which ones will develop into SCC.

Board certified dermatologist Dr. Jamie McGinness and Jackie McGinness, FNP (Nurse Practitioner) provide skin care treatments to patients in Shiloh, IL; St. Louis, MO, and surrounding communities.


Causes of Actinic Keratosis

Sun Exposure

The cause for almost all AKs is chronic sun exposure. The skin sustains cumulative sun damage. Therefore, even short periods of exposure to the sun add up over an entire lifetime.

In fact, even cloudy days are not safe as 70 to 80 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation can pass through clouds. These damaging rays can bounce off sand, snow, and other reflective surfaces as well causing additional exposure.  

A person’s chances of developing one or more AKs increases in proportion to the time they spend in the sun over the years. Therefore, older people and outdoor workers have a higher risk of developing AKs. The incidence of AK development is marginally higher in men as they tend to spend more time outdoors in the sun and use less sun protection in comparison to women.

While AKs do affect people as young as in their 20s, they are much more common in individuals over 50 years of age. According to some experts, almost everyone over the age of 80 years has AKs.



The likelihood of AK development increases with the proximity to the equator. Therefore, people living nearer to the equator have higher chances of developing AKs.


Other Causes

Dermatologists warn against indoor tanning as the UV rays emitted by lamps in tanning salons can be even more dangerous and concentrated than the sun. The odds of developing AKs increase in proportion to the indoor tanning a person indulges in.

At times, AKs can also occur due to extensive exposure to x-rays or various industrial chemicals.


Who is at Risk?

People who have fair skin, blonde or red hair, freckles, and blue, gray, or green eyes are most prone to sun damage. They have a higher possibility of developing AKs if they spend time in the sun and live for a long enough duration.

Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, and other ethnicities with darker complexions are not as vulnerable as Caucasians. However, skin cancers can develop in anyone. In part due to late diagnosis, skin cancers in Hispanics and African Americans are more likely to be detected at advanced stages in comparison to those found in Caucasians.

People who have a weakened immune system due to AIDS, cancer chemotherapy, organ transplantation, or other reasons are less resilient to UV rays and more likely to develop AKs. It is important to note that extensive UV radiation exposure itself weakens the immune system reducing its ability to repair damage from UV rays.

Board certified dermatologist Dr. Jamie McGinness and Jackie McGinness, FNP (Nurse Practitioner) receive patients from Shiloh, IL; St. Louis, MO, and nearby areas for dermatology treatments.

If you would like to learn more about procedures and treatments at Metro East Dermatology & Skin Cancer Center by Board Certified Dermatologist Dr. Jamie L. McGinness please contact us here or call (618) 622-SKIN (7546)

Taking new patients in and around the greater St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois area: East St. Louis Missouri, Shiloh Illinois, Belleville, Millstadt, Saint Clair County, Madison County and more.

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