Cosmetic Dermatology

Therapies for Actinic Keratosis With a Focus on Cosmetic Outcomes

Author and Disclosure Information



Procedural Modalities

Surgical Procedures

Surgical approaches for the treatment of AK include excision, curettage with or without electrodesiccation, and dermabrasion. In the past, these modalities were used with greater frequency, but the advent of effective topical medications with lower risks of AEs has largely reduced their use.41 Excision may still be indicated in cases where SCC is suspected, and curettage can be used for treatment of thicker hypertrophic AKs.42 Although these approaches have not been evaluated in clinical trials, they are generally effective but require the use of local anesthetics and come with substantial risk for infection, permanent scarring, and hypopigmentation. Dermabrasion employs the use of a motorized device equipped with an abrasive material to physically remove superficial layers of the skin. Studies are limited, but this method has been reported as an effective treatment in a retrospective review of 23 participants in which 96% remained free of AKs at 1 year, 83% at 2 years, 64% at 4 years, and 54% at 5 years posttherapy.43 Notably, one split-face study of 40 participants treated with dermabrasion followed by 25% TCA on one side and either Jessner solution and 35% TCA or dermabrasion alone on the other side reported that the combination of dermabrasion with 25% TCA consistently produced excellent cosmetic results with nearly complete eradication of AKs.44 In general, however, cosmetic outcomes with dermabrasion are variable, as the technique is highly operator dependent and treatment is associated with notable discomfort as well as risk for scarring and permanent pigmentation alteration.


Cryotherapy remains one of the most commonly utilized treatments of AK and involves the delivery of liquid nitrogen via a spray device or a cotton tip applicator to rapidly freeze cells, thus causing cellular destruction via ice crystal formation and protein denaturation.45 Efficacy with this technique has been reported to be as high as 98.8% at 12 months follow-up, but more recent studies cite lower rates of success.46 A prospective multicenter study of 90 participants with 421 AKs on the face or scalp treated with a single freeze-thaw cycle of liquid nitrogen reported an overall complete response rate of 67.2% at 3 months posttherapy. Additionally, higher complete response rates were associated with longer freeze times, and cosmetic outcomes were reported as good to excellent in 94% of complete response lesions.47 Similar results were reported in an open-label, prospective, randomized, controlled clinical trial of 200 participants with 
543 AKs, which compared a single freeze-thaw cycle with liquid nitrogen to a single session of CO2 laser ablation in the treatment of isolated AKs of the face and scalp.48 At 3 months posttherapy, complete clearance was observed in 71.6% of participants treated with cryotherapy and in 65.3% of participants treated with laser ablation (P=.532). At 
12 months posttherapy, participants who originally showed complete response at 3 months were assessed for relapse. Complete clearance was preserved in 72.6% of participants treated with cryotherapy versus 21.9% of participants treated with laser ablation (P<.0001), and cosmetic outcomes were reported by participants as good or excellent at 3 months follow-up in more than 93% of participants for both treatment arms.48 Possible AEs of cryotherapy include pain during treatment, blister formation with possible hemorrhage, infection, scarring, and permanent pigmentary changes.47,48 Notably, the risk for hypopigmentation increases with longer freezing times, thus requiring clinicians to consider the balance between improved efficacy and reduced cosmetic outcomes.47

Light-Based Therapies

Laser Therapy

Ablative laser resurfacing with either the CO2 or erbium-doped:YAG (Er:YAG) laser utilizes light of specific wavelengths to selectively induce thermolysis and destruction of the epidermal layer. Both lasers have been studied as treatments of AK, but there is a lack of large, well-designed studies. In one small study of 14 participants treated with 
1 to 2 passes of the CO2 laser, complete clearance was reported in all cases without any recurrences during a follow-up period of 6 to 24 months. Additionally, all participants in this study reported satisfaction with the cosmetic outcome.49 The CO2 laser also has demonstrated efficacy comparable to that of the TCA peel and 5-FU therapy in a prospective randomized trial of 34 patients with facial or scalp AKs who received either CO2 laser with 2 passes, 30% TCA peel, or 5-FU cream 5% twice daily for 
3 weeks.15 Reduction in mean AK counts at 3 months posttherapy was significantly (P<.03) higher in all treatment arms as compared to the control group (92% for CO2 laser, 89% for TCA peel, and 83% for 5-FU cream). No significant (P=.31) difference in outcomes was noted among the different treatment arms.15 Similar results were reported for the Er:YAG laser in a small prospective study of 5 participants treated with 2 to 3 passes with the Er:YAG laser in which reduction in mean AK counts was reported as ranging from 86% to 96% at 3 months posttherapy.50 The Er:YAG laser in combination with the CO2 laser has shown notable long-term efficacy in achieving higher lesion clearance rates and sustained complete clearance rates over treatment with topical 5-FU.51 In a prospective randomized study of 55 par-ticipants with multiple AKs on the face or scalp, participants were assigned to receive either combination laser ablation with the Er:YAG and CO2 lasers down to the level of the papillary dermis or 
5-FU cream 5% applied twice daily for 2 to 7 weeks until an appropriate clinical inflammatory response was achieved. At 12 months follow-up, the laser treatment group achieved significantly (P=.048) higher mean lesion clearance rates (91.1%) as compared to the 5-FU arm (76.6%) and significantly (P=.003) higher sustained complete clearance rates (59.3%) as compared to 5-FU (29.2%). The proportion of participants with an improvement in photoaging score at 12 months follow-up approached statistical significance (P=.07), with 74% of the laser-treated group showing improvement as compared to 43% of the 5-FU–treated group. Long-term, cosmetically unappealing side effects such as erythema and hypopigmentation occurred notably more often in the laser-treated group as compared to the 5-FU group.51 In summary, ablative lasers appear to be a highly effective therapy for AK but at the cost of increased risk for AEs such as permanent pigmentary changes, prolonged erythema lasting up to several months, and scarring.50,52-55


Next Article:

Picato adverse events prompt FDA warning

Related Articles