Seborrheic Keratosis 101 – Everything You Need to Know

August 11, 2020

seborreic keratosis on patient's skin

Seborrheic keratosis is a fairly common skin condition for people at or after middle age, but many people don’t know about it. According to Dr. Caitlin Farmer of U.S. Dermatology Partners affiliate office Center for Dermatology in Flower Mound and Plano, Texas, “When people see these growths pop up, they can be worried by their appearance. Seborrheic keratoses look similar to pre-cancerous growths, but luckily, this condition is actually benign.” Read our blog to learn more about what seborrheic keratosis is and how it’s treated at U.S. Dermatology Partners.

What is Seborrheic Keratosis?

Seborrheic keratosis is a benign skin growth that typically impacts people as they age with the first growths forming around middle age. Dr. Farmer says, “The name seborrheic keratosis coupled with the appearance can cause people to worry. The appearance of the growths looks like warts or moles associated with melanoma, and the name sounds similar to a form of pre-cancerous skin growth called actinic keratosis. The good news is that even though it looks and sounds like more serious conditions, seborrheic keratosis is actually harmless.”

Often developing after the age of 50, seborrheic keratosis has earned the unfortunate nickname “barnacles of aging.” Like barnacles, where there is one growth, there are usually many. Seborrheic keratoses often develop quickly, which is another reason people may have cause for concern when they first notice these growths.

What Does Seborrheic Keratosis Look Like?

Seborrheic keratosis can develop anywhere on the body apart from the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, but it most often appears on the scalp, face, neck, shoulders, back, chest, and stomach. While some people do develop just one seborrheic keratosis growth, this is very rare. The majority of people will see a cluster of growths. Seborrheic keratoses may vary in color from light white or tan to dark brown or black. The size of seborrheic keratosis growths can also vary dramatically from small pinpoint dots to large spots the size of a quarter or even bigger.

Most seborrheic keratoses begin as skin that suddenly feels waxy or bumpy in texture. This area may thicken, forming tough growths that look like warts or moles. While these growths don’t usually cause any pain, they may itch or tingle.

According to Dr. Farmer, “Because these growths can look so similar to skin cancers like melanoma, it’s important to visit the dermatologist when seborrheic keratoses develop. A skilled professional can assess the new growths and determine whether you’re dealing with a harmless seborrheic keratosis or something more serious.” Some situations where you should visit your dermatologist to discuss your seborrheic keratosis include:

  • Growths that grow, multiply, change in appearance or texture, or otherwise evolve, especially if they’re changing very quickly.
  • Your growth has an uneven border or is different on one side.
  • The color of your growth is red, purple, blue, or other colors that don’t appear naturally on your skin.
  • A growth that is easily damaged or takes a long time to heal from the damage.
  • There is only one growth rather than a cluster of seborrheic keratoses.

What Causes Seborrheic Keratosis?

It’s unclear what causes seborrheic keratosis growths to develop. These growths often develop in families, so genetics may be a factor. If you have a family history of seborrheic keratosis, you may be at greater risk to develop this condition. Other factors that increase the risk of developing seborrheic keratoses include:

  • Aging – most people don’t develop these skin growths until after the age of 50.
  • Darker skin tone – those with deeper skin tones may be at greater risk to develop these growths around the eyes.
  • Hormonal changes – pregnancy, menopause, and other hormonal shifts will increase the likelihood of developing seborrheic keratoses.
  • Sun exposure – while growths can develop on just about any part of the body, they are the most common in areas that are regularly exposed to sunlight.

How is Seborrheic Keratosis Diagnosed?

According to Dr. Farmer, “Diagnosing seborrheic keratosis is usually pretty easy. We simply visually assess the area and make a determination based on the growth’s appearance and texture. In some cases, we will want to take a biopsy to view the growth’s cells under a microscope, verifying it’s seborrheic keratosis and not melanoma or other more serious skin conditions.”

How is Seborrheic Keratosis Treated?

Treatment for seborrheic keratosis is not usually necessary. We may recommend removing these growths if there is a concern that they are cancerous and a biopsy is necessary for your health. Additionally, we may recommend removing seborrheic keratoses if they are often caught or tugged by clothing or jewelry, if the patient is experiencing frequent itching and irritation, or the location causes issues like blocked sightlines if they develop around the eyes. If the appearance of seborrheic keratosis bothers you, a dermatologist may also recommend removal.

There are many treatment options for seborrheic keratosis, including:

  • Freezing – using liquid nitrogen to perform cryotherapy, we can freeze the growths and they will fall off in a few days.
  • Electrosurgery – using an electric current, we can break down the growths. Because the affected area is cauterized with the heat from the electric current, there is usually no need for stitching, which minimizes risk for infection and scarring.
  • Curettage – often used in conjunction with electrosurgery, curettage uses surgical implements to scoop away the areas of skin impacted by seborrheic keratosis.
  • Laser ablation – using a laser to vaporize and remove the seborrheic keratoses.

After the seborrheic keratosis is removed and the skin heals, most people will experience few if any long term effects. In some cases, removal leaves the skin looking a little lighter than surrounding areas, but this typically goes away over time. Typically, the removed seborrheic keratoses won’t reform, but some people do develop new growths in other areas.

Can I Prevent Seborrheic Keratosis?

According to Dr. Farmer, “There is no way to completely prevent the development of seborrheic keratoses. However, if you know you’re at risk or you frequently develop these growths, working with a dermatologist means you can limit the impact this skin condition has on your life.”

Schedule a Visit with the U.S. Dermatology Partners

If you’re dealing with seborrheic keratosis or any other skin condition, the U.S. Dermatology Partners team is happy to help you. To schedule an appointment to visit us in our practice, you can fill out our simple scheduling request form.

If you prefer to schedule an appointment with the U.S. Dermatology Partners via virtual visit, we are happy to provide teledermatology sessions using a HIPAA compliant video chat platform. You can give our team members the necessary information quickly by filling out our virtual visit request form. We look forward to hearing from you.

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