Not Just Moles: The Other Skin Condition That Can Become Cancerous

Skin cancer has a good rate of successful treatment if it's caught early, so it's important to be alert to suspicious symptoms. If you carry out regular checks of your skin—or have a professional take a look for you—you're likely to be aware of any warning signs.

When you hear advice on checking your skin for signs of cancer, a lot of the focus is on moles, whether it's looking for new ones or noticing any that have changed somehow. This is important because problematic moles are the most common sign of skin cancer—but they're not the only one.

Actinic keratosis is a skin condition caused by sun damage, and it's generally harmless. In some people, however, it eventually develops into squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. It also reveals a higher risk of other types of skin cancer. Here's how to spot actinic keratosis.

People who develop actinic keratosis

While anyone can develop the condition, as it's caused by sun damage, it's most common among people who have a history of getting sunburn. It can appear even when you haven't been burned recently.

As with other sun-related skin issues, those most at risk are people with fair skin, people who live close to the equator and those who spend a lot of time outside. You also have an increased risk if you have an immune system disorder.

Common sites on the body

Actinic keratosis can appear anywhere on the body. Understandably, however, it's most often found on the areas that get the most sun exposure.

These body parts are the arms, neck, shoulders and face on most people, but check anywhere the sun hits you. Pay extra attention to spots like the ears and hairline, where sun cream is often missed.

Typical appearance

The exact appearance of actinic keratosis varies, but the first thing to look for is a small patch of skin with a rough, scaly texture. It might look a bit like a wart.

They can show up in various colours, often pink, red or brown. Sometimes, they might be the same colour as your skin, with only the scaliness being noticeable.

When to seek medical help

If your skin is irritated, sore or bleeding, you should definitely get it checked out for a diagnosis and advice. As with moles, if you notice any changes in the appearance of actinic keratosis, have a medical professional look at it.

In general, it's best to err on the side of caution and have any changes to your skin checked out, and if you have any doubts or concerns, talk to a doctor instead of worrying on your own.