Cosmetic Dermatology

Therapies for Actinic Keratosis With a Focus on Cosmetic Outcomes

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Actinic keratosis (AK) is a commonly encountered premalignant epidermal lesion that has a predilection to manifest on highly visible areas such as the face, head, and hands. Lesions may be cosmetically unappealing and have been reported to reduce patients’ quality of life (QOL), but appropriate treatment can resolve these issues. In this article, we review the efficacy of the most commonly utilized treatments for AKs including topical medications, procedural modalities, and light-based therapies, and we discuss the relevant cosmetic considerations and outcomes.

Practice Points

  • In addition to their risk for progression to malignancy, actinic keratoses (AKs) can have negative impacts on cosmetic appearance and quality of life.
  • A variety of topical medications, procedural modalities, and light-based therapies are available for treatment of AKs, which offer varying degrees of efficacy for clearance of lesions and cosmetic outcomes. Based on the current data, imiquimod and photodynamic therapy are the treatments most likely to provide an excellent cosmetic outcome.



Actinic keratosis (AK), also referred to as solar keratosis or senile keratosis, is an intraepidermal proliferation of dysplastic keratinocytes that develops in response to chronic exposure to UV radiation. Actinic keratoses are among the most commonly encountered lesions seen by dermatologists, and it has been estimated that 60% of predisposed individuals older than 40 years have at least one AK.1,2 Prevalence is notably higher in light-skinned individuals and increases with age, presumably from higher cumulative sun exposure and decreased effectiveness of the immune system.1,3 It remains a point of contention as to whether or not AKs actually represent squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) in situ, but the potential for progression to invasive disease has been well demonstrated, as the majority of SCCs develop from preexisting AKs.4-6 The risk for progression to invasive disease for an individual AK has been estimated to range from 0.025% to 16% per year, with an average of approximately 8% in immunocompetent patients.7

The clinical morphology of AK can vary widely, but the most common presentation is an erythematous scaly macule, papule, or plaque on sun-exposed skin. The skin surrounding AKs typically shows evidence of solar damage with deep wrinkling, mottled pigmentation, scattered telangiectases, purpura, or xerosis (Figure). A variety of clinical variants with unique presentations exist, including atrophic, hypertrophic, acantholytic, lichenoid, bowenoid, and pigmented subtypes. Because more than 80% of AKs occur on highly visible areas such as the head, neck, back of the hands, and forearms, AKs can have an obvious detrimental effect on cosmetic appearance. Studies also have shown a strong association between AKs and decreased overall quality of life (QOL).3,8,9

Patient with numerous actinic keratoses, scattered plaques suspicious for squamous cell carcinoma, and numerous scars from prior squamous cell carcinoma treatments.

Because of the risk for AK progression to invasive cancer along with its negative impact on cosmesis and QOL, clinicians generally opt to treat AKs. Numerous different treatment options exist, including topical medications, procedural modalities, and light-based therapies. Here, we review the efficacy of the most commonly utilized treatments and discuss the relevant cosmetic considerations and outcomes.

Topical Treatments


5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) is a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–approved, topically applied pyrimidine analogue that inhibits thymidylate synthase. The resulting suppression of DNA and RNA synthesis induces cell death with a preference for mitotically active cells.10 5-Fluorouracil has been used for more than 
50 years as a treatment of AK and its efficacy is well established. A systematic review of 5 randomized controlled studies of topical 5-FU reported an average of 49% of 423 patients achieving complete lesion clearance with 5-FU cream 5% applied once or twice daily for up to 7 weeks.11 Some notable drawbacks of 5-FU, however, are application-site erythema, blistering, pruritus, necrosis, erosion, and pain. These effects often lead to premature cessation of therapy, but newer formulations of 5-FU cream 0.5% have shown good efficacy with better tolerability.12 A randomized, double-blind, multicenter, parallel-group study of 177 patients using 5-FU cream 0.5% once daily for either 1, 2, or 4 weeks demonstrated significant (P<.001) efficacy over vehicle gel in all treatment arms.13 The most effective therapy was 
4 weeks of treatment, which achieved a mean 91.7% reduction in lesion count as assessed 1 month after cessation of therapy. The primary adverse effect (AE) reported in this trial was mild to moderate facial irritation, which generally resolved within 
18 to 21 days after treatment cessation.13 Overall, 5-FU is a highly effective therapy for treating AKs that also can improve signs of photoaging, but patients should be aware of cosmetically unappealing effects that generally occur throughout therapy and during the immediate posttreatment period.14

Chemical Peels

Chemical peels traditionally employ acidic compounds to strip away outer layers of skin to variable depths depending on the concentration of the agent being applied. For treatment of AK, trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is a commonly employed cauterant that has shown efficacy comparable to topical 5-FU as well as ablative CO2 laser resurfacing.15 Trichloroacetic acid peels also are a convenient therapy, as good results can be achieved after a single treatment session. A split-face study of 15 patients treated with either a single application of 35% TCA and Jessner solution or twice-daily application of 5-FU cream 5% for 3 weeks demonstrated a reduction in 75% of visible AKs in both treatment arms over a 1-year follow-up period.16 Although 80% of patients self-reported considerable cosmetic improvement with both therapies, patient preference was reported to be in favor of the TCA peel, given its quick results and relatively mild side effects as compared to 5-FU. Treatment with chemical peels will result in temporary erythema and mild desquamation that usually resolves within 2 weeks; however, there are cases in which erythema has been reported to persist for several months.16 Adverse effects such as permanent scarring or pigmentation changes rarely are seen with TCA concentrations less than 45%.17 Caution should be used in patients with a history of herpes simplex virus, keloids, postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, radiation exposure, immunosuppression, and those unable or unwilling to use sunscreen and avoid sun exposure in the immediate posttreatment period.


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