Take a good look at your birthday suit and you’ll probably find small, harmless growths known as skin tags. Though common and nothing to worry about, you should point them out to your dermatologist, especially if they’re new. “To the untrained eye, it may look like a skin tag. But you don’t know that; you need to make sure it isn’t skin cancer,” says Dr. Manjula Jegasothy, a dermatologist based in Miami.
What Are Skin Tags?
A skin tag (the medical term is an acrochordon) is an overgrowth of normal skin. “It may be a small round bump or a long skinny tube. The typical size is between 1 and 3 millimeters in diameter and 1 to 4 millimeters in length,” Jegasothy says. “Some bigger skin tags have a stalk that attaches it to the underlying skin.”
You can have one skin tag or hundreds of them, and they may appear in a range of colors. “Most commonly they are the color of your skin, but they can also be hyperpigmented, so they can be darker like a mole or they can be pink or red,” explains Dr. Barbara Vinci, a dermatologist based in Springfield, Ohio.
Other characteristics of skin tags:
- They can grow anywhere on the body, but occur mostly in the folds of skin – under the arms, on the neck, on the eyelids, under the breasts or near the groin or genitals.
- They contain blood vessels.
- They may contain nerve cells.
Skin Tag Causes
Skin tags occur in about half of the population and become more common with age. It’s not clear why they develop. They’re associated with:
- Genetics. You may get skin tags if you have other family members who’ve had them.
- A condition called Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome. “That’s a rare genetic syndrome, but it would be one case where you’d get more than your average amount of skin tags. But there would be other findings with that,” Vinci says. (Other findings could include lung and kidney problems.)
- Hormone fluctuations, such as pregnancy.
Skin tags are also associated with:
Jegasothy thinks weight gain is the common denominator in skin tag development. “There could be increased friction because you’ve gained weight. You may have diabetes because you’re overweight. They all go hand in hand,” she notes.
Is Skin Tag Removal Necessary?
If your doctor says the small growths on your body are skin tags, there’s no need to remove them.
However, you may want to get rid of them if you don’t like the way they look or if they become irritated and bleed as they rub against your skin, clothes or jewelry.
There may even be the chance that a skin tag becomes infected. “If you have a skin tag that twists on itself, it will cut off its blood supply, become painful as the skin dies or open up and develop a sore. That’s when it’s time to see your doctor,” Vinci says.
If your skin tag is infected, your doctor will prescribe a topical antibiotic and then remove the skin tag when the infection heals.
Skin Tag Treatments
Skin tag removal takes place in a doctor’s office. There are several removal methods.
- Snip excision. “We clean the area, numb it with a shot of lidocaine, then snip off the skin tag at the stalk,” Vinci says. “There’s usually a little bit of bleeding, and we stop the bleeding with aluminum chloride, a form of chemical cautery (burning the tissue to seal it).”
- Electrodessication (a form of cautery using electricity). “We put a numbing cream on the area and the patient sits for 10 minutes. Then we touch the cautery machine to each skin tag and it shrivels up like a Rice Krispy for a few days,” Jegasothy says. “There’s no blood or pain. On day three, the skin tag turns black. It falls off on day four. There’s no mark, and it looks like you never had it. I find it’s the most effective way.”
- Cryotherapy (a freezing technique using liquid nitrogen). “The skin tag will fall off on its own within two weeks. It can leave a little scar,” Vinci says.
For both electrodessication and cryotherapy, the skin tag must be covered with petroleum jelly and a bandage until the skin tag falls off.
Skin tags don’t normally grow back, but new ones can develop in the same general area.
Home Skin Tag Treatments
Skin tag removal is considered a cosmetic procedure and is not covered by insurance. “Nationally, you can expect to pay $200 to $600 to remove a number of skin tags in one area. If it’s larger than two or three millimeters, we’re obliged to send it to a pathology lab, so that can raise your price as well,” Jegasothy says.
Such costs may tempt you to remove the skin tag on your own, but doctors don’t recommend it. “Don’t try cutting it off at home. It hurts, and the biggest risks are infection and bleeding,” Vinci says. Larger skin tags have larger blood vessels within them, and the risk of bleeding from at home removal is significant.
What about home remedies like apple cider vinegar, wart removers or essential oils marketed to remove skin tags? “They don’t work,” Vinci says. “And the danger with vinegar is that you can give yourself a chemical burn and permanent scar.”
Preventing Skin Tags
There’s no way to prevent skin tags for sure, but maintaining a healthy weight is a good place to start. “Eat right and exercise. It’s the best prevention, but it’s not a guarantee,” Jegasothy says.
If you do have skin tags that are easily irritated, take steps to minimize the problem.
- Use a good moisturizer to reduce friction near a skin tag.
- Avoid or limit wearing jewelry (such as necklaces) near a skin tag.
- Avoid or limit wearing tight-fitting or synthetic clothing that can bother a skin tag.
Finally, see your dermatologist at least once a year for a full-body skin check. Your skin is your largest organ, and it’s essential to keep it healthy and make sure new growths aren’t a sign of a more serious problem.