Is it a Skin Tag? How to Properly Identify this Skin Condition

Multiple, flesh-colored skin tags.

It is a harmless skin tag, or a cancerous mole? Perhaps you’re taking a shower and feel an unfamiliar lump of flesh in your armpit. And what is that growth that suddenly appeared on your neck? 

More than making you feel self-conscious, these unusual skin growths may also cause you undue stress if you’re unsure what they are and if they are a symptom of a more serious health condition. You can go online to find out more, and lo and behold! Your search turns up a few articles that say you only have a few weeks to live! 

The internet can be a scary place when you’re trying to self-diagnose. But this article will help you identify, in a calm and logically analytic way, if what you have is merely a cosmetic annoyance or if you need to visit a doctor. 

Identifying a Skin Tag

No need for suspense; let us get this out of the way now. A skin tag is simply a tiny sac or pouch of skin that contains collagen fibers and blood vessels. It usually hangs from the skin by a thin stalk. Skin tags are typically flesh-colored, but they can also be slightly darker than the surrounding skin. They’re usually the size of a grain of rice. They are soft to the touch; they do not itch; they just hang there like nobody’s business. 

These growths are benign – these means they are harmless and pose no health risk. They might get irritated and infected if they’re constantly exposed to friction, i.e. if they are constantly rubbed against skin, clothing, or accessories. And if they are located in a highly visible area, such as the face or neck, then they can be bothersome and cause one to be self-conscious. 

Skin tags commonly appear on the eyelids, neck, armpits, genitals, groin area, and anus. If you’re lucky, you’ll only have one skin tag where the sun doesn’t shine. Or you could be prone to skin tag clusters. About 60% of adults develop skin tags at least once. Sometimes, they go away on their own. If they don’t, there are a variety of treatment options available to help get rid of these pesky growths. 

NOT Skin Tags

The following are other types of skin growths that are NOT skin tags:

Cysts. These are also small, sac-like pockets or lumps; unlike skin tags which are filled with collagen and blood vessels, however, cysts contain fluid, air, or other substances. They may also grow under the skin anywhere on the body. Like skin tags, cysts are mostly non-cancerous, but they can often become swollen, inflamed, and even painful. 

There are different types of cysts, depending on where they are located. For example, ganglion cysts only grow along the tendons and joints of the hands, wrists, ankles, and feet; chalazia is a swelling that grows on the upper or lower eyelid; while mucous cysts are found in the mouth.

Cysts can get infected, but are easily treatable. Most cysts that form inside the body, such as ovarian cysts, can lead to more serious health problems. In general, cysts cause problems when they:

  • become very large
  • get infected
  • grow in a sensitive area
  • put pressure on a blood vessel 
  • affect organ function

Cysts typically go away on their own, but if they become problematic, you should have it checked by a doctor. 

Close-up of a swollen cyst on the back of a woman’s neck.

Warts. These are also small growths, but with a rough texture, darker or lighter pigmentation, and irregular shape. There are different types of warts depending on where they are located – genital warts occur in the genital area; palmar warts grow on hands; and plantar warts appear on feet. Warts are caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV, and are sometimes contagious. 

Most warts do not require medical treatment and go away on their own within a year or so. When warts grow in sensitive areas, grow too large, or grow in clusters, then treatment might be necessary. Common treatment options include wart creams, salicylic acid, surgical excision, laser surgery, cauterization, and cryotherapy. As long as they are not a serious health risk, warts can be easily treated at home using over-the-counter products. 

Close-up of wart on a finger.

Moles. These skin growths are made up of clusters of pigmented cells. They may be flat or raised; oval, round, or irregularly shaped. They can appear anywhere on the body, and people can have between 10 to 40 moles. Moles normally change in appearance over time; they also normally fade over time. 

Hormonal changes, such as during adolescence and pregnancy, often cause moles to become darker. But any sudden change in size, shape, texture, and/or color could be an indication of melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Moles that become itchy and/or bleed should be immediately checked by a doctor. Protection from UV rays is the most effective way to prevent melanoma. 

Close-up of dark brown, oval mole.

So, it’s a skin tag; does it require treatment?

As previously mentioned, skin tags do not pose any health risks and can be left alone. They might get irritated and infected, and this will require a visit to the doctor. Normally, a biopsy will be done to test tissue from the skin tag and determine if there is a medical problem. And then a treatment plan will be discussed based on the biopsy results, which may or may not involve removal of the skin tag. 

If the skin tag is located in an area that exposes it to constant friction or snagging, thereby causing irritation and discomfort; or if it is conspicuous and affects one’s appearance, there are safe and easy at-home treatment options available. Even if it’s not medically necessary, a doctor may also perform skin tag removal, although because it’ll be considered a cosmetic procedure in this case, it will not be covered by health insurance. 

At-home skin tag removal methods include:

  • Ligation or tying off the skin tag using a piece of floss or string.
  • Ligation using an over-the-counter ligation band. 
  • Application of tea tree oil. 
  • Application of skin tag cream. 
  • Using freeze spray. 

Professional removal methods include:

  • Surgical excision. 
  • Laser removal.
  • Cryotherapy using liquid nitrogen. 
  • Cauterization. 

These methods treat the condition by “killing” the skin tag, usually by cutting off its blood and oxygen supply. Depending on the removal method, a skin tag can take weeks or even months to completely dry out and fall off. The fastest removal methods are those that are performed by a doctor; DIY skin tag removal takes longer. Some methods also have a higher risk of infection and scarring. Proper aftercare should be followed in order to facilitate fast and full recovery. 

When should you worry about skin growths?

Whatever type of skin growth you have, you should seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following:

  • Sudden change in appearance, such as size, color, shape, and texture. 
  • Irritation, swelling, and/or soreness 
  • Bleeding or presence of pus. 
  • Itching, pain, and/or inflammation. 

Skin tags are rarely cancerous. Infected cysts can lead to a more serious medical problem. Some warts can be contagious. And some moles have a likelihood of becoming a melanoma. If you are concerned about your skin growth, the best thing to do is to consult a doctor.