Who isn’t bothered by skin tags? You know, those annoying flesh-colored dangling pieces of skin? If you’ve got one or more, you know it. You probably can’t keep your hands off of them. Skin tags are probably the most common bump or growth found on adult skin. You may think they are ugly (and sometimes they are), but the good news is that they are harmless. Here’s what you need to know about skin tags, their causes, and whether or how they should be removed.
What are skin tags?
Skin tags are simply an outgrowth of normal skin. They are diagnosed based on clinical appearance. They may be as small as a pencil point or may grow to the size of a dime. Typically, they are only a few millimeters in diameter.
A single tag is pedunculated. That means it is attached by a peduncle which is a narrow stalk to which the growth attaches to the skin.
In the dermatologic literature, skin tags are also known as acrochordons, fibroepithelial polyps, or cutaneous papillomas. Whatever you call them, they are harmless, benign skin tumors that typically do not hurt, itch, or cause pain.
They are very common. Almost 50% of the adult population has them. The chance of developing them increases with age. Further, a person may have a single skin tag or may develop hundreds of these fleshy growths.
What causes skin tags?
Skin tags are commonly seen in individuals with obesity and diabetes. Some observational studies suggest that they may be a sign of insulin resistance. But the exact cause is uncertain.
Environmental factors may play a role, as they sometimes, but not always, occur in areas where skin rubs against skin creating areas of friction.
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Examples include the armpits, around the base of the neck, underneath the breasts, and along the inguinal crease where the upper thigh meets the body. Skin tags may also be found on the eyelids.
Hormones may also play a role in developing skin tags as these growths seem to increase in pregnant women. And as with many medical conditions, there may be a genetic predisposition because skin tags often run in families.
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Common myths about skin tags
Only older folks get skin tags
Although they are more common in older individuals, anyone, including children can develop these benign growths.
They are contagious
They are not contagious.
Removing skin tags causes new ones to grow
Removing them does not cause new tags to grow, although new ones may develop with age.
Skin tags are the beginning of cancer
They are, in fact, universally benign. Reports of skin cancer arising within them extremely rare.
Skin tags indicate that you have cancer
They are not a sign that you have cancer or any other medical condition, for that matter. One exception is an exceedingly rare, complex inherited disorder called Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome associated with a variety of benign skin tumors, including skin tags. However, because skin tags are very common merely having them is not an indication of an underlying malignancy or any other health problem.
Only people who are overweight get them
This is not true. Although overweight individuals may be more likely to develop skin tags, these fibromas do not discriminate. Even the most underweight individual can develop them.
Should skin tags be removed?
Most dermatologists recommend the removal of tags only if they are the source of irritation or discomfort. Although they often become inflamed in areas where skin rubs against the skin, they can also become irritated from clothing or get caught in jewelry.
Skin tags can be removed if an individual finds their appearance unfavorable. It is important to note, however, that many private insurers no longer cover the removal of these benign growths solely for cosmetic purposes. From a strictly medical perspective, there is no reason to remove an otherwise asymptomatic skin tag.
How are skin tags removed?
Skin tags can be easily removed in a dermatologist’s office with a small Gradle scissor. These scissors have a slight curve and fine tips. They are used for delicate work.
Small tags can be removed without anesthesia. However, larger lesions often necessitate numbing the area by injecting a small amount of local anesthetic.
Other in-office removal techniques include freezing the tag (cryotherapy), similar to wart removal, or removing the tag with a cautery.
Home remedies for removal of skin tags
Many people attempt to remove skin tags at home. I do not recommend doing this because of the risk of infection, bleeding, and unnecessary pain. It is best to have them removed by a professional.
Further, you could mistake a more serious condition, such as a malignant mole, for a benign skin tag. A skincare expert should examine skin lesions before attempting do-it-yourself removal.
That being said, there are a variety of ways people have tried removing skin tags on their own, including the following:
Over-the-counter wart remover, creams, and patches marketed to remove tags
There are a plethora of products marketed as wart or skin tag removal agents. Some work by freezing the skin. Others are chemicals that are applied to the tag to cause the cells of the tag to die and slough off.
Most of these products have not been subjected to formal safety and effectiveness studies, even though they may be labeled as “doctor recommended” or doctor-proven therapy.
Some products have been reported to discolor the skin and some cause skin irritation, particularly if they contain salicylic acid or tea tree oil. Occasionally, their use can result in infection. Further, even when used according to the directions, these products may not be effective in removing the skin tag.
Cutting, clipping, or shaving
Many people attempt to cut off their skin tags at home using scissors or nail clippers. Some may try to shave them off. These DIY procedures can be painful, and they may be associated with significant bleeding, infection, or scarring. It is recommended that a professional remove skin tags, particularly in the following circumstances:
- the tags are medium to large
- they are in sensitive areas, such as the face or genitalia
- the person has a bleeding disorder or is on blood thinners
- to determine if the lesion is benign or malignant
Some people try to remove the tag by cutting off the blood supply to its base using an over-the-counter skin tag removal band. Or, they may use products already found in the home, such as dental floss or another type of string. The idea is that without blood, the skin tag cells will die, and the tag will fall off. This procedure can cause discomfort and, in some cases, prolonged pain.
The role of a skin expert in the removal of skin tags
Don’t assume a new growth is a benign skin tag, particularly if its features are atypical. We recommend that a skin expert evaluate any change in your skin before attempting to treat it yourself. And while you are there, let the expert remove it for you. One and done.
Published 7/20/20. Updated 3/18/21