How to Differentiate Between Genital Warts and Skin Tags

Having an abnormal skin growth in a sensitive area such as your genitals can be embarrassing for most people. At the same time, it can also be a cause for concern. A lot of people would hesitate to go to a doctor and have that small and unusual skin growth between their legs checked, no matter how worrisome it is. Is it just a harmless skin tag or could it be a contagious genital wart?

These two can be difficult to tell apart if you’re not familiar with either one. The location, needless to say, can also be tricky to properly examine yourself – unless you’re an acrobat. If you have been losing sleep over such a small problem, it’s because you know that its diminutive size really does not matter in this case if what you have are genital warts, which could translate to an STD. 

But perhaps you do not need to go through the embarrassment of a checkup if you can determine for certain that you only have skin tags growing down there – completely harmless, albeit a bit unappealing still. If they’re not skin tags, however, then you will need to visit a doctor soon so you can get proper treatment for your condition. 

If you’ve been despairing for an answer, read on to find out how to differentiate skin tags from genital warts, and what your treatment options are. 

Skin Tags vs Genital Warts – A Quick Look

No need for suspense, below are the major differences between skin tags and genital warts:

  • A skin tag is a small flap or pouch of extra skin, like a tiny extension attached to the surface of the skin by an even tinier stalk of flesh. 
  • A genital wart either looks like a flat spot on the surface of the skin or a slightly raised concave bump. 
  • A skin tag that appears in the genital area is most likely caused by constant skin-to-skin friction, or even the constant rubbing of skin against clothing. It may also be caused by a hormonal imbalance. A skin tag is rarely symptomatic, which means it is usually harmless. 
  • A genital wart is caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is very contagious.  

What is a skin tag?

Contained within this small sac of extra skin are collagen fibers (the same stuff that skin is made of) and blood vessels. Skin tags are benign growths, posing no harm to health. This means that removing them is rarely a medical necessity, but they can be removed for cosmetic reasons. 

Skin tags are usually flesh-colored or slightly darker than the surrounding skin; they are soft to the touch. Their size can range from 2mm to 5mm, but they can also grow to the size of a grape over time. Even then, skin tags remain harmless, although they can get snagged on clothing, scratched, or rubbed frequently against other surfaces. Any of these can lead to the skin tag becoming irritated and even infected. 

While an infected skin tag is usually the result of an untreated wound, i.e. when the skin tag is accidentally scratched and the skin is broken, a biopsy might still be performed by a doctor to rule out other possibilities. An infected skin tag might require surgical removal, or it might just need to be treated just like any other wound. 

What causes genital skin tags?

As mentioned above, the most likely cause of genital skin tags is frequent skin-to-skin friction, such as what typically occurs during sexual intercourse. Wearing tight underwear also exposes the skin to constant friction, which increases the likelihood of skin tags in the groin area. 

People who are overweight or obese often develop skin tags in the groin area as a result of the increased surface area that gets exposed to friction. Pregnant and menopausal women are likely to develop genital skin tags because of the hormonal changes/imbalance their body experiences. Older adults, typically those 45 and older, are also more prone to skin tags. A genetic predisposition to skin tags is also a factor. 

Options for removing skin tags on genitals

Once you (or your doctor) have determined that what you have are genital skin tags, then you have the option to treat and remove them at home using safe and effective over-the-counter products. 

Micro TagBand Skin Tag Remover Device for Small to Medium Skin Tags

Micro TagBand Skin Tag Remover Device for Small to Medium Skin Tags
$19.95 on Amazon
  • Micro TagBand works by stopping the skin tags blood supply and results can be seen within days
  • The included cone is placed over the skin tag with the removal device pushing off the band

Pristine Herbal Touch – Wart & Mole Vanish, All Natural Mole & Skin Tag Remover 

Pristine Herbal Touch - Wart & Mole Vanish, All Natural Mole & Skin Tag Remover (Fast Results, 20 Minute Application) Award Winning, Best Mole Remover, Best Wart Remover, Fast & Effective, All Natural
$84.99 on Amazon
  • JUST ONE 20-MINUTE SINGLE APPLICATION – Pristine Herbal Touch Wart & Mole Vanish removes 2-5 large growths or 5-25 smaller growths with one kit. Read the instructions fully and start the removal process with our one, 20-minute application process. 
  • FAST & EFFECTIVE MOLE AND SKIN TAG REMOVAL – One, 20-minute application is normal in most circumstances. No daily application of creams, oils or acids! Check out our before and after photos to see examples of real people who have removed unwanted moles, warts, and skin tags.
Apothecary Extracts - Tea Tree Oil - 100 Percent Pure Australian Tea Tree Oil - 4-Ounce Value Pack - Pharmaceutical Grade Essential Oil - Treats Acne, Bacterial Infections and More
$27.71 on Amazon

Apothecary Extracts – Tea Tree Oil – 100 Percent Pure Australian Tea Tree OilApothecary Tea Tree Oil

  • Pharmaceutical grade, highly versatile essential oil
  • Use to make your own shampoo, lotion, tea tree oil soap, body wash, toothpaste 

Your choice of skin tag treatment will depend on how fast you want it to work and your tolerance for pain. Ligation or tying off the skin tag with the TagBand device, for example, will give faster results than topical treatment. However, it can also be a bit painful. On the other hand, a topical application such as tea tree oil is a painless option, but takes months of regular use before the skin tag is removed. 

Discussing your removal options with a doctor is always best. What you must NOT do is twisting or pulling off a genital skin tag. This will most likely not work because that tiny stalk that attaches the tag to the skin is deceptively strong and you will only cause yourself unnecessary pain. 

What are genital warts?

Genital warts can appear as a single growth or a cluster of pink, light brown, or dark brown spots or bumps. Young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are the most commonly affected. The warts are irregularly shaped, typically resembling a cauliflower, and have a rough texture. 

Genital warts are caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection. The virus is highly contagious, and can also easily spread to other areas near the genitals. In women, genital warts appear on the vulva and/or the walls of the vagina. In men, they show up around the tip of the penis. The virus can also spread to the mouth via oral sex. 

Because genital warts are a viral infection, they can be prevented by practicing safe and protected sex. 

Genital Warts vs Skin Tags
Close-up of pinkish warts.

Treatment options for genital warts

HPV which causes genital warts is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). If left untreated, genital warts can cause an STD, such as cervical cancer. While STDs are a serious health risk, genital warts are easily treatable and preventable. 

Genital warts can cause discomfort, itching, and pain; sexual intercourse can be unpleasant, to say the least. But it is highly recommended that a person with genital warts refrain from any form of sexual activity until the condition has been treated so as to prevent further spread of the infection. 

While genital warts are a type of warts, over-the-counter wart creams will not work, especially if the virus has already caused a more serious health problem. This is why it’s extremely important to get checked by a doctor if you suspect that you might have genital warts. The earlier the condition is diagnosed, the earlier you can receive treatment and the better chances you’ll have of avoiding further complications. If what you have are not genital warts, then you’d be able to sleep better at night. 

Your doctor may prescribe you with strong antiviral creams or a cauterizing solution (typically trichloroacetic acid). Again, sexual contact in any form must be avoided during treatment. Other treatment options include:

  • Cryotherapy using liquid nitrogen.
  • Surgical excision, which involves cutting off the growths with a scalpel.
  • Electric cautery, which burns off the warts by using an electrical current.
  • Laser treatment, which uses an intense beam of light to also burn off tougher warts. 

Don’t confuse genital warts with skin tags

If you have never had to deal with any type of skin growth before, finding an abnormal growth in your private area would be more than unnerving. Given the obvious difficulty of self-examination, making a proper identification of what you have down there will be tricky. Perhaps you can have your partner (or somebody else you trust) check “it” out, but making the correct diagnosis can only be done by a doctor. 

While skin tags are harmless, genital warts are not and will require immediate treatment. Even if you believe that what you have are most likely skin tags because you were able to identify the distinct characteristics, you should still err on the side of caution and have a doctor conclusively rule out the possibility of a sexually transmitted infection. 

Prevention

Genital warts from HPV are easily preventable. Practice safe sex, and do not engage in any sexual activity with anybody if you believe they might have genital warts. Regular checkups with your doctor is also highly recommended, especially if you’re sexually active. Ask your healthcare professional about the possibility of getting the HPV vaccine, as this can provide protection against most types of HPV. 

Because the exact cause of skin tags remain unknown, prevention of this skin condition cannot be guaranteed. But you can reduce your risk by avoiding/minimizing the risk factors. If you’re overweight/obese, you should lose the excess weight through a healthy diet and regular exercise. Avoid wearing clothing that is too tight. Adopt a proper skincare routine to keep your skin healthy and less susceptible to any form of irritation (such as from friction) and abnormal skin growths. 

If you notice any unusual skin growth and you’re not sure what it is, consult a doctor before attempting any at-home treatment.