Sitting by the pool, hiking up a mountain, or just tanning in our backyards – we Americans take having “fun in the sun” to a whole new level. Ironically, our love and appreciation for the sunny outdoors is a main reason non-melanoma is the most common cancer in our country, and why millions of us have pre-cancerous skin growths.

Pre-cancer spots are premalignant changes in human skin cells. These alterations are commonly noticed as lesions or growths on sun-exposed areas, including the scalp, face, hands, and forearms. Precancerous conditions can develop into two different forms of non-melanoma skin cancers: basal and squamous cell carcinomas.

Actinic keratosis, actinic cheilitis, Bowen’s disease, and leukoplakia are precancerous lesions that can develop into squamous cell carcinoma in situ (SCCIC) – a prevalent type of skin cancer affecting 1.8 million people each year. Flat squamous cells close to the skin’s surface and
multiplying at an advanced rate characterize SCCIC.

Important Facts About Pre-Cancer Spots

In this article, we will answer the most frequently asked questions about precancerous skin. Our goal with this tell-all guide is to aid all of you in preventing and detecting skin cancer early.

FAQ #1: What does precancerous skin look like?

Precancerous skin growths can have a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are easily recognizable, while others may require a physical examination for diagnosis. Early detection is vital for treating premalignant lesions, making it crucial to have any skin abnormality examined by a professional.

Starting with actinic keratosis (AK), most appear as small, scaly, or crusty patches. They can be red, pink, or have different colors. Due to their rough and bumpy texture, AK lesions are more palpable than visible.

Actinic cheilitis, a rare variant of actinic keratosis, can cause dry and flaky patches, particularly on the lower lip area. Wrinkles and painful ulcers may also develop because the skin becomes too dry and rough.

Bowen’s disease also exhibits pinkish-red and scaly patches, which tend to be larger than AKs.

As for leukoplakia, they appear as thick, white patches with raised borders. These lesions often arise on the mouth’s internal surfaces.

FAQ #2: What are the causes of pre-cancer spots?

Damage to the DNA inside skin cells is the primary cause of premalignant skin spots. This damage can result in changes to several genes responsible for controlling cell growth, prolonging cell survival, regulating cell division, and preventing unnecessary cell death. These changes can lead to uncontrolled cell growth – a hallmark of cancer.

FAQ #3: What are the risk factors for precancerous skin?

Numerous genetic and environmental risk factors can contribute to DNA damage and the subsequent development of precancerous skin. These risk factors may include individual traits, exposure to UV radiation, specific viral infections, and certain genetic conditions. Let’s discuss each of these risk factors below.

  • Ultraviolet rays. Exposure to UV radiation, whether from natural or artificial sources, poses a significant risk to human skin. While sunlight is the primary source of exposure, tanning beds are even more dangerous, as they emit higher levels of UV rays than those found in nature. When UV radiation penetrates the skin’s inner layers, it can cause cell mutations or uncontrolled growth due to unrepaired DNA damage from harmful UV activity. To minimize the risk of long-term harm from UV radiation, those who spend too much time in the sun – whether for work or leisure – should take precautions.
  • Viral infections. Certain infectious diseases, such as the human papilloma virus (HPV), can trigger abnormal cell growth on the skin. Cancer may occur when a virus’s genes interfere with the proteins responsible for regulating the division and death of infected skin cells, leading to rapid multiplication and an extended lifespan of infected cells.
  • Personal attributes and history. People with lighter skin tones, blonde and red hair, and light-colored eyes are more vulnerable to pre-cancer skin growths. Those who burn or freckle easily and have a smoking history are also more prone to developing such conditions. Although precancerous skin growths can affect anyone, older adults are more susceptible to these issues. In addition, a family history of skin cancer may further increase a person’s risk.
  • Genetic conditions. Those with xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) have a significantly higher risk of developing skin cancer due to a genetic mutation that impairs the body’s ability to repair sun-damaged DNA. Photophobia or extreme sensitivity to sunlight, as well as dryness in sun-exposed areas, characterize this rare disorder.

FAQ #4: How do doctors diagnose pre-cancer spots?

An experienced dermatologist can diagnose precancerous skin through extensive physical and medical examinations. The first step involves searching for signs of actinic keratosis and other growths, which include:

  • Raised bumps or growths on the skin
  • Rough, scaly, or crusty patches of skin
  • Red, pink, or brown spots or patches of skin
  • A new or changing mole
  • Itching or burning in the affected area

If the dermatologist suspects a precancerous lesion, they may perform a biopsy. During this procedure, a surgeon will remove a small skin sample from the affected area and send it to a laboratory for analysis. The lab will then examine the sample under a microscope to determine whether the collected specimen is precancerous or malignant.

FAQ #5: How does Buckeye Dermatology treat premalignant skin growths?

Treatments for precancerous skin growths vary depending on the extent and location of the unusual growth. In mild cases, regular skin cancer screenings and close monitoring by our licensed dermatologists ensure that any lesion maintains a benign or noncancerous state. For more severe cases, the patient can apply topical prescriptions (creams or gels) on the affected area. Levulan photodynamic therapy in Buckeye and Scottsdale, AZ is another option for small and localized lesions, which involves using specific medications and light energy to eliminate precancerous tissue.

For more aggressive precancerous growths, our healthcare professionals may suggest surgical removal. Cryosurgery, for example, is a technique that uses low, freezing temperatures to destroy cancerous tissues. Please read this article for more information on the different skin cancer treatments we provide.

In addition, our team encourages all patients to use sunscreen with at least SPF 30, stay in the shade, and wear protective clothing to prevent pre-cancer spots from progressing and recurring.

“Something unusual is happening to my skin.”

Buckeye Dermatology AZ offers state-of-the-art tools and equipment for diagnosing and treating both precancerous and cancerous lesions. If something suspicious has appeared on your skin’s surface, contact us at 602-754-6075 to schedule a screening.