The health of our skin and how we look has a great effect on our overall well-being. If we look good, we feel good. There are some skin conditions that can greatly affect our self esteem and dent our confidence.
One of the most common of these are skin tags. These relatively common skin growths are often misunderstood, but for anyone who has ever suffered from them, cause feelings of shame and embarrassment. This needn’t be the case. Here, we outline everything you need to know about skin tags and how to treat them safely and effectively.
Definition of a Skin Tag
How can a skin tag be described? They’re small growths of skin that can vary in size and appearance, and they’re usually attached to the skin underneath them by a small ‘stalk’. To the naked eye they look like they’re just loose/hanging skin and often they’ll appear or grow in places where clothing or undergarments rub closely against the skin. Sometimes they will occur where there is friction between different parts of skin on the body, so think about the groin area, the upper part of the chest/breasts, the neck and even underarms.
They’re a skin condition that rarely ever occurs in new born babies but are a phenomenon that will increase with age. It’s estimated that a quarter of adults over the age of eighteen will develop them in one or more areas of their body at some point in their lives.
There are also studies to show that there can be a genetic predisposition to skin tags too. If someone in your close family has them, it’s more than likely you will develop skin tags at some point in your adult life too.
Frequently Asked Questions about Skin Tags
Do skin tags have a medical name?
The medical name for a skin tag is an ‘acrochordon’. However, they are also sometimes known as soft fibromas, fibroepithelial polyps, fibroma pendulans, and pedunculated fibroma. Sometimes healthcare practitioners may refer to them as ‘soft warts’, although strictly speaking they do not belong to the verruca or papillomas family.
A skin tag is medically termed an acrochordon. Sometimes, other terms have been used to refer to skin tags. These include soft warts (although they do not represent true warts), soft fibromas, fibroepithelial polyps (FEP).
Can skin tags be dangerous in any way at all?
The simple answer is ‘no’. They can look unsightly and can make the person who has them feel very self-conscious, but they will not cause any harm. Sometimes if clusters of them develop in the same area they may feel uncomfortable is they rub against other areas of skin, or get caught on clothing, but this will cause no long-term damage.
A skin tag on the body is usually very easy to spot as although they’re quite small they are soft to the touch and usually attached to the rest of the skin in the same area by a thin stalk.
What are skin tags composed of?
They are almost always formed from collagen fibres and blood vessels from the skin in the area they grow. Collagen is a protein we all have in our bodies, and once we reach the age of eighteen it starts to decline, this is one reason that skin tags tend to (but not exclusively) form in adults rather than children.
Are skin tags gender specific?
All sexes can develop skin tags and they’re not more exclusive to one gender. They tend to affect more adults and are also a lot more common in people who have health conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes. Skin tags are often a lot more likely to develop in pregnant women as their hormones fluctuate during pregnancy and after the birth.
People who experience problems with weight gain may also find themselves more susceptible to skin tags. This is because they tend to grow in skin folds, where skin will turn in on itself, and cause rubbing and chafing. Common areas for this to occur are the armpits, groin and neck.
What do they look like?
Typically, they will just look little spurts/spurs or growths of skin that appear to be hanging off the area they have developed on, as the image to the right shows.
Sometimes, they can be darker in appearance and not ‘flesh’ colored, but the difference between these and a mole is that a skin tag is always connected to the skin by a thin stalk.
Skin tags may also appear to be smooth or can look wrinkled. They vary in their size from extremely small (less than 1mm) to the size of a black grape.
Where do skin tags grow on the body?
The most common places for skin tags to develop are as follows:
Breast area (in females they will grow underneath)
Upper chest (mainly in males)
Folds of the neck
What Causes Skin Tags?
It is thought by the medical profession that the main reason skin tags develop is due to friction caused between areas of skin that rub together, or between items of clothing and skin.
Often, they might occur more frequently in people who are overweight, or who have diabetes (or sometimes both conditions concurrently).
There is also evidence to suggest that people who have the condition Crohn’s Disease may also be more susceptible to skin tags, particularly in the area of the anal opening. These are often referred to as perianal skin tags.
Symptoms and treatment
Do skin tags produce any symptoms?
Skin tags as a rule should not be painful. They are also not associated with any other skin conditions. There are some notable exceptions. Pain or discomfort may be felt if a skin tag becomes twisted. It then may also turn red or black.
People who suffer from a diabetes related condition called acanthosis nigricans, which affects the skin might find that they are prone to growing skin tags more frequently.
If I have a skin tag, do I need to see a Doctor?
More often than not, a skin tag will cause no pain or discomfort and are harmless to the person that has them.
The main reasons that people seek medical assistance with skin tags are for the following:
- If they are affecting your self-esteem or confidence. Many people find they develop large clusters of skin tags, or that they arise in places on the body that can’t easily be covered up. It is then advisable to seek help and advice on having them removed.
- If a skin tag has caught or snagged on clothing, or on your nails or jewellery then it might be worth getting a referral to have them removed. Sometimes as a result of these traumas, they twist and bleed, and whilst this is not painful it can be unsightly. Depending on where you live, you might be able to get them removed via your healthcare provider, or you might have to pay for it with medical insurance.
- Occasionally, people find that skin tags drop off on their own, especially if they are only very small and the blood supply has been cut off for a long time.
What are the differences between skin tags and warts?
How to tell skin tags and warts apart:
- A skin tag will appear smooth and soft. It will also hang off the skin or protrude. Skin tags are never contagious.
- A wart is rougher, and almost always has an irregular surface. They are always flat or perhaps slightly raised from the surface of the skin. Warts are also highly contagious. So if you suddenly notice a cluster of growths on your skin like this then it’s advisable to visit a Doctor for treatment.
Diagnosing Skin Tags
It’s possible to diagnose skin tags just by their appearance, as they are very distinctive. It is very rare that any doctor would want to perform a lab test or blood test to diagnose a skin tag.
However, there are some instances in which, once a skin tag has been removed, a doctor may wish to send it to the pathology department at your hospital for diagnostics, to make sure it is not an indicator of other skin conditions.
There are some types of skin moles known as nevi, which do appear to be similar to skin tags that may sometimes need further investigation. However, it is extremely rare for a skin tag to develop into skin cancer.
Can I remove a skin tag at home?
No. No Doctor or other healthcare practitioner would ever recommend this. There are no known products on the market or other methods of removing skin tags that are suitable or safe to be used at home. You could end up with scarring, skin infections or other much worse symptoms should you try this yourself. Always leave removal of skin tags to professionals.
If I go to a doctor how will they treat my skin tags?
A doctor is the only person who will be able to safely remove a skin tag. They will be able to do this in a number of different ways. Either by:
Removing it with a surgical blade or surgical scissors
Liquid nitrogen to freeze them off
Electrocauterisation as seen here:
Before any of these procedures are performed, a local anesthetic will be administered. Usually this will be an injection, or lidocaine or sometimes a topical anesthetic cream. This is more likely to be needed for removal of larger skin tags. Smaller ones are often quickly removed without any prior numbing.
Never remove a skin tag yourself, and always seek medical advice if it is becoming bothersome.
Removal of a skin tag with the use of proper surgery means that you can be assured it will be removed properly. There is always a risk of some bleeding afterward, but this should be minor and there should be no pain or scarring afterwards.
Aftercare and prevention of skin tags
How to look after your skin after a skin tag removal
Once a skin tag has been removed, you should experience no pain or discomfort. There may be a small amount of bleeding, but this should stop relatively quickly.
Follow your Doctor’s advice on looking after your skin in the immediate aftermath of having skin tags removed. They will give you specific instructions on keeping your skin clean and what products to use/not to use on your skin afterwards. This will all depend on the size of the skin tags being removed and where they are on your body.
Can skin tags be prevented?
It’s worth noting that there is very little you can do to prevent skin tags, especially if they run in your family. So long as they are not causing any discomfort and you don’t try to remove them yourself, they can sometimes either fall off on their own, or will just need an occasional visit to the Doctor to have them taken off.
Myths and misconceptions about Skin Tags
Skin tags will end up turning into skin cancer
Basically, no. Any Dermatologist or Doctor worth their salt will tell you this too. Skin tags are almost always not cancer causing. Most of them don’t really ever need to be removed unless they are causing discomfort.
However, as with all skin conditions of this nature, there are some very rare exceptions to the rule which need to be highlighted.
In a study that was carried out on two patients who already had a condition called basal cell nevus syndrome (BCNS), they were found to have multiple basal cell carcinomas that to all intents and purposes just resembled ordinary skin tags. It seems there are very rare occasions when skin cancers can ‘mimic’ what looks to be an ordinary skin tag. The advice from medical experts here is that if the tag grows, changes color, or bleeds or itches excessively, or you notice any other untoward changes to your skin in that area, visit a doctor immediately.
Skin tags can easily be removed without medical supervision at home.
Many healthcare professionals would argue that skin tags are more often than not a cosmetic problem and pose no real threat to health. However, this doesn’t mean they can be safely removed at home and in the event you feel that you need skin tag removal then it is till always the best course of action to visit a doctor or dermatologist for help.
Skin tags can bleed a lot when they are taken off, which is the prime reason it’s always better to seek medical assistance when they need to be removed. Dermatologists always recommend that a skin can should never be cut off or cauterized at home.
There is a theory that skin tags can be removed at home by tying it with dental floss, thus allowing the blood supply to it, to be cut off. Top Skin Doctors say this is a very bad idea. Skin tags can all have varying amounts of blood supply to them and can sometimes become very painful if you try this method of removal. It is much easier to visit a doctor and have them safely removed in a sterile environment.
Also, although it’s very rare for skin tags to turn into cancer, it’s always better to get a formal diagnosis and make sure that what you’re dealing with is a skin tag and not any other form of growth such as a cyst or a mole.
If you take off a skin tag, you’ll encourage more to grow
Again, no. In the same way that if you pluck out a grey hair, you’ll get two in its place simply isn’t true, neither is this. People worry that having skin tags removed will cause them to spread, but this isn’t the case. If you’re predisposed to them, you’ll likely get more, but in other places. You won’t encourage more to grow in the places you’ve had them removed from though.
Cosmetic products you can buy over the counter will remove and stop skin tags
There is nothing you can buy over the counter, or from a drugstore – or even make at home that will stop skin tags from growing, or help you remove them. Any how-to videos you may have seen online are at best just going to offer some extra emollient properties to the skin which might temporarily improve the appearance of the tag, and at worst could cause serious damage to your skin, which might then warrant treatment with a Doctor. The only way to have skin tags removed properly is at the Doctors or Dermatologist’s office.
You can’t prevent skin tags
They are unpredictable by nature and can occur in people that have no history of them in the family. But there are certain conditions which might make you more susceptible. If you’re overweight or diabetic, you may have a naturally higher propensity to develop skin tags than people who have no issues with their weight or their blood sugar.
Keeping your weight healthy and stable, and making sure your blood sugars are under control may help with the issue of developing skin tags, but there are no guarantees.
You’ll develop skin tags if you’re unclean
No. Skin tags have nothing to do with personal hygiene. There are other skin issues that can be triggered by poor personal care, but skin tags are not one of them.
That’s not an excuse to become a soap dodger. Keeping your face and body clean and washing with warm water and a mild soap every single day will mean that your risks of developing other skin conditions stay low and will also mean you’re less likely to get sick. It’s also important to remember that if you have skin tags removed, it’s important to follow your Doctor or Dermatologists advice on keeping the skin clean after the procedure too, to cut the risk of skin infection.
Skin on skin contact with other people who have skin tags means you’ll get them
No. Another myth. Skin tags are not contagious like warts are. You cannot pick up a skin tag by having contact with someone who does have one. Skin tags are more likely to occur in folds or creases of skin, where there is increased friction, but this is usually down to the skin folds and creases themselves creating a ‘friendlier’ environment for the tags to develop than the friction itself, although this will play a small part.
It’s perfectly OK to shake hands or touch someone with a skin tag! You won’t pick them up and nor are you likely to infect anyone else. In some cases, skin tags can be caused by the HPV virus, but it isn’t a train of the virus that is contagious or that will spread person to person.
Any growths that appear on your skin are skin tags
Never assume that if you have a growth on your skin that it is ‘just’ a skin tag. There are other skin conditions that look like tags but aren’t. Some moles can look like tags, even some types of common spot.
If something that looks like a skin tag has suddenly appeared from nowhere and you’re unsure about what it might be, get it checked out and make sure you’re aware. Chances are it will be fine, but it is always better to be safe than sorry.
There are also some kinds of skin growths than can an extension of glands on the skin. If left untreated, or picked and prodded at, at home, they run the risk of becoming infected and causing greater problems down the line. If you’re unsure about anything on your skin, visit a Doctor or other healthcare practitioner for help and advice on what to do and how to treat it, either professionally or at home (if it isn’t a skin tag of course). It is always better to be safe than sorry.
References and Further Reading