If you’ve ever noticed what looks like a small skin-colored or dark growth on your body, chances are you’re looking at an acrochordon, commonly known as a skin tag. It’s a familiar sight as you age: Close to half of all adults have skin tags, and the risk of developing them increases as you get older, usually until you reach your 70s.
Skin tags tend to develop in skin-fold areas, such as the underarms, neck, eyelids, groin, and under the breasts. Although anyone can get them, they’re more common among obese people; it’s thought that the friction occurring when skin folds rub together can cause the tags to form. People with diabetes also have a higher rate of skin-tag growth, possibly caused by insulin resistance. Some evidence suggests that they may be a marker for cardiovascular disease. Pregnancy is another time when skin tags often develop (although they tend to shrink after delivery).
“The development of skin tags may be genetic or part of the normal aging process and usually does not indicate any underlying health problem,” says Gregory Henderson, M.D., Ph.D., a dermatologist and health sciences clinical instructor with UCLA Dermatology in Palos Verdes, Calif. “Skin tags also don’t discriminate when it comes to gender, with men and women equally affected by them.”
Anatomy of a skin tag
Attached to the skin by little “stalks,” skin tags can grow to 1 to 2 centimeters or larger. Tiny as they are, skin tags can be a big nuisance, and many people find them unsightly. Although usually not painful, they can catch on clothing and jewelry, causing irritation. However, if a skin tag becomes twisted at the blood supply location, causing tissue to die, it can darken and become painful, although this is uncommon.
“If you want a skin tag removed because you don’t like the way it looks, or it’s causing discomfort, it’s important that you see your doctor,” Henderson says. “The tag has its own blood supply, and you could end up bleeding quite a bit if you attempt to remove a large skin tag on your own. You’re also leaving yourself open to infection.”
Your dermatologist can remove the tag in one of three ways: snipping it with medical scissors and forceps, burning it (electrocautery), or freezing it (cryosurgery).
“Any of these methods work well and, with anesthetic, should be relatively painless. And the skin tag likely won’t grow back,” Henderson says.
A cosmetic procedure
Skin-tag removal is sometimes considered a cosmetic procedure, so your health insurance or Medicare may not cover treatment unless it’s deemed a medical necessity—for example, if you have a limited number of symptomatic skin tags or your doctor suspects one may be cancerous.
And stay away from over-the-counter products to remove skin tags; they work by killing the unwanted skin and can cause irritation, bleeding, or infection. And they should never be used around the eye area.
If you have a skin tag, check the growth from time to time. See your doctor if you notice any change, such as enlarging or darkening, or if it becomes painful. A clinical exam and possibly a biopsy can help rule out cancer or any other skin condition that might require treatment.