These small, fleshy growths strike up to half of all adults. We asked doctors to explain what causes skin tags, who is at risk, and the right thing to do to get rid of them.
You might have one right now: a small, fleshy protrusion of skin that doesn’t hurt or itch. It’s probably the same color as the rest of your body, and it may be circular or oblong, usually hanging by a thin stalk.
What is this bump? It’s most likely a skin tag, known in the medical world as an “acrochordon.” Skin tags are pouches of skin that tend to pop up on parts of your anatomy that naturally have lots of skin folds, such as under your arms or breasts, or on your neck, groin, and eyelids.
They can be mysterious and worrisome, and they're often mistaken for other growths, such as warts. But knowing why they develop and what to do about them will help dial back any anxiety you have. Here’s an overview of skin tags: who gets them, where they tend to show up, and the safest way to get rid of them.
What are skin tags?
Some of the spots and marks that pop up on your skin can be serious, but skin tags in general are not. Soft and smooth, their color can vary: they are usually the same tone as the rest of your skin, but they can also be brown, and they may appear darker in fair-skinned individuals. Some skin tags even turn red or black, if they get twisted and their blood supply is cut off.
Some are almost microscopic—less than a millimeter in diameter—while others grow to 5 millimeters or more. You may get just one or two or develop them in clusters. If a skin tag is hidden in a fold of skin under your breast or on your side or back, as they often are, you may not even know you have one until you randomly stumble across it in the shower or after looking in the mirror carefully. But some people notice them because they can get chafed, thanks to the friction created when your clothes rub against your skin.
“Skin tags in themselves are not harmful, however they can become painful due to irritation and rubbing from jewelry or clothing,” says Nkanyezi Ferguson, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City.
Who gets skin tags and what causes them?
As many as half of all adults will develop skin tags at some point, and they are more common as you get older. Skin tags also tend to run in families, suggesting that there is a hereditary component. “Men and women are equally affected,” says Dr. Ferguson.
People who are overweight or obese are more prone to skin tags because they have more folds of skin. But there's another reason being heavy makes you more likely to have them. Carrying extra weight is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and studies have shown that people with this kind of diabetes have more skin tags, as do people with high blood-sugar levels. This suggests a relationship between skin tags and the hormone insulin, which governs sugar levels in the blood."Obese people with diabetes are more likely to have skin tags because they have higher levels of insulin," explains Robert Courgi, MD, endocrinologist at Southside Hospital in Long Island, New York. Insulin promotes growth, he says, and it may also cause skin cells to replicate. This in turn leads to the development of skin tags, which can be an early warning sign for diabetes, Dr. Courgi adds.
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Research has also linked skin tags to abnormal metabolism of carbohydrates and lipids as well as high blood pressure, both of which are aspects of metabolic syndrome—aka, "pre-diabetes," a collection of conditions that raise the risk for heart disease and diabetes. Some scientists now advise that people with multiple skin tags be checked for diabetes as well as heart disease.
Hormones other than insulin also probably contribute to skin tags. Pregnant women often develop the tags during the second trimester. Skin tags also crop up in people who produces too much growth hormone in their pituitary gland in the brain.
Certain health conditions bring with them a higher risk of skin tags. One of these is Crohn’s disease, a chronic condition that causes inflammation in the digestive tract and triggers side effects such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping, constipation and rectal bleeding. Skin tags in people with Crohn’s tend to appear at the opening of the anus, research shows.
Children rarely get skin tags, but a skin disease called nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome (also known as Gorlin syndrome) can produce growths that look like skin tags. This is a genetic disorder that leads to the skin cancer basal cell carcinoma. That’s why anything that looks like a skin tag on a child will often be biopsied.
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Should you get rid of a skin tag?
Occasionally skin tags fall off on their own. But in general, once they appear, they’re usually there to stay. While it’s understandable that you’d want to get yours removed, think about it first, since there's no health reason to snip it off. “It is not medically necessary to remove skin tags and it is fine to leave them be,” says Dr. Ferguson. “Removal can be considered if they are irritated or if they present a cosmetic concern.”
“In summer, usually people want to take them off,” adds Michele S. Green, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
The safe way to have a skin tag removed
When it comes to removal, this is one body issue not to DIY. True, the tags are benign, and it might seem like you could cut yours off quickly and easily with cuticle scissors. But doing so can cause pain, bleeding, and the potential for infection.
Since you need to see a dermatologist to confirm the bump is indeed a skin tag and not something more serious, like warts or skin cancer, play it safe and have it removed in your doctor’s office.
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“There are a few different techniques that can be used to remove skin tags depending on location, size, and skin type,” says Dr. Ferguson. Each method is simple and relatively painless. Your doctor may choose to freeze the tag off with liquid nitrogen (called cryosurgery); burn it off (electrocautery); or cut it off at the base with sterile scissors or a blade. If the tag is a large one, you may need local anesthesia and stitches. In most cases, removal "takes two minutes; it’s pretty quick,” says Dr. Green.
One thing to know if you’ve had one taken off: odds are good that it’ll return again in the exact same place. That means going back to your dermatologist for another removal procedure . . . or learning to live with it.