Medically referred to as an acrochordon, a skin tag is an extra flap or pocket of skin, usually the size of a grain of rice, attached to the body by a tiny stalk. It is typically flesh-colored and soft. Skin tags may also grow in clusters.
A skin tag is rarely a serious condition; it is benign and do not pose any health risk. Skin tags commonly grow on the eyelids, neck, underarms, and groin area. They may cause discomfort or become bothersome if they constantly get rubbed against or snagged on clothing or jewelry. They can be unsightly when they appear in conspicuous areas of the body, such as the face and neck.
Skin tags are an “abnormal” skin growth and may also be called a tumor, albeit a non-cancerous one. They may become infected as a result of friction and may require removal, although this seldom occurs. Otherwise, there is no medical necessity to remove a skin tag. Those who opt for skin tag removal often do so for cosmetic reasons.
What causes skin tags?
Medically speaking, skin tags are tiny sacs or pouches of skin that contain collagen fibers (the same stuff that skin is made of) and blood vessels. What exactly causes a skin tag to grow is still unknown, but there are known risk factors. These include a family history of skin tags; constant skin contact with clothes and/or jewelry; being overweight or obese; hormonal imbalance/changes; and diabetes.
About 60% of adults develop skin tags at least once; they commonly start to appear around age 45, but younger adults can also have them. Some people are more prone than others and develop multiple skin tags or clusters of skin tags. Pregnant women may grow skin tags as a result of the hormonal changes in their body. These skin tags typically go away on their own after pregnancy. A common explanation as to why people with diabetes and/or who are overweight/obese are more at risk for developing skin tags is because these conditions are also associated with hormonal imbalance and the extra weight often results in increased skin-to-skin friction.
How to identify a skin tag infection
A normal skin tag is flesh-colored; but lighter-skinned people may have skin tags that are slightly darker in pigmentation. Some skin tags are smooth, while others appear wrinkled; but they are usually soft to the touch. They can be as small as a grain of rice, but they can also grow to the size of a grape, but this happens slowly over a long period of time.
Any sudden changes in the appearance of a skin tag may indicate an infection. Swelling, redness, itching, pain, or bleeding are also common symptoms that should be immediately addressed by a doctor. If there is an infection, it’s usually limited to the skin tag, but the doctor may have to perform additional tests, including a biopsy, to determine if there is an underlying health problem or a more serious health risk.
How worried should you be by a skin tag infection?
Even an infected skin tag is rarely a sign that the growth is cancerous. More often than not, the infection is caused by chronic irritation or acute trauma (such as the skin tag being caught on something).
Skin tags that grow in sensitive areas, such as the eyelids and genitals, are more at risk of becoming infected and may become a health issue because the mucous membranes in these areas can become inflamed if the initial infection is not properly treated.
An infected skin tag is not contagious, however. But you should take note that a skin tag infection could be easily misidentified, especially if it is in the groin area. It could actually be an infected wart. Unlike a skin tag infection, a wart is contagious as it is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). For this reason, it is extremely important that a possible skin tag infection be checked by a doctor right away so it can be diagnosed and treated correctly.
What other problems can they cause?
A skin tag can be bothersome in other ways. They can cause discomfort and irritation if they are constantly rubbed against skin (which commonly occurs with skin tags that grow in the armpits and inner thighs). Or they can make feel a person extremely self-conscious if they are big or appear in clusters on the face or neck.
What treatment options are available for an infected skin tag?
Whether or not the infection will require that the skin tag be removed, these are the medical treatment options you can ask your doctor about:
- Cryotherapy. This treatment involves flash freezing a skin tag using liquid nitrogen.
- Electric cauterization. The treatment involves the use of a device to cauterize or “burn” the skin tag.
- Laser surgery. This works the same way as cauterization, but is more accurate and has minimal to zero chance of infection and scarring.
- Ligation. This involves tying a band around the base of the stalk of the skin tag to cut off circulation and “kill” the skin tag.
- Surgical excision. This involves using a scalpel to cut off the skin tag at its base.
You may also discuss with your doctor alternative treatment options which you can do yourself at home. These include:
- Over-the-counter skin tag creams
- Over-the-counter freeze sprays
- Skin tag ligation bands, ligation with floss or string
- Tea tree oil
- Apple cider vinegar
Skin tag prevention
It is a common myth that removing skin tags will cause more to grow. Especially when skin tag removal is done medically by a doctor, the skin tag does not always regrow. However, because some people are more prone to skin tags than others, a new skin tag may grow around the same area.
Can skin tags be prevented? Because the definite cause of skin tags is not yet fully understood by scientists, there is also no guaranteed way of preventing them. The best you can do is to manage the risk factors to minimize the likelihood that they’ll develop.
Living a healthy lifestyle with a healthy diet and regular exercise will keep extra weight off and, therefore, eliminate one of the risk factors for skin tags. You can also avoid wearing clothes that are too tight. A proper skin care regimen, which includes regular visits to a dermatologist, will also be an added advantage.
If you do develop a skin tag and it does not cause any problems, you can just leave it alone. If you notice any signs of infection, you should have it checked by a doctor immediately. Whatever the case, there are a number of options available to you should you wish to have a skin tag removed by a doctor or through alternative methods.