Skin tags are small, painless growths that hang from the skin. They vary in colour and size and are completely harmless. Some people choose to have them removed for cosmetic purposes or because they are catching on clothing.
Dr Juliet McGrattan looks at the common causes, risk factors, treatment options and home remedies for skin tag removal:
What are skin tags?
Skin tags are small flaps of tissue which stick out from the skin. They are usually only 2 to 3 millimetres in size but they can grow up to 5 centimetres over time. They are a type of benign (harmless) skin tumour. Skin tags are covered in epidermis, the usual outer layer of skin. Inside there are collagen fibres, blood vessels, nerve fibres and fat cells. Skin tags are often attached to the skin by a thin stalk, also known as a peduncle.
What causes skin tags
Friction or rubbing against the skin surface irritates skin cells. This leads to overgrowth of cells and the development of skin tags. Friction can come from skin rubbing against skin, such as in the armpits, or from clothes or jewellery rubbing against skin. Tags usually start as tiny bumps and gradually get bigger.
Risk factors for skin tags
Anyone can get a skin tag and some people have multiple ones. Men and women seem to be equally affected. The following factors make skin tags more likely:
Age – skin tags become more frequent as you get older.
Genetics – if close relatives have skin tags then you’re more likely to get them.
Obesity – due to larger skin folds where friction can occur.
Type 2 diabetes – skin tags have been linked to insulin resistance.
Pregnancy - changing hormones and high levels of growth factors can stimulate skin tag growth.
Where do you get skin tags?
Skin tags are common wherever skin meets skin and where clothing meets skin. Frequent sites for skin tags are:
Around the neck
Skin tag diagnosis
How do you know it’s a skin tag? You might confuse a skin tag with a wart or a mole but there are certain characteristics which help you tell the difference.
• Skin tags
Skin tags have a soft, smooth surface which is usually skin coloured or slightly darker. They stand away from the skin and often have a thin stalk.
Warts tend to be flatter to the skin, with no stalk. Warts also have an irregular, uneven surface and are usually harder to the touch.
Moles are more domed shaped and like warts, are flat to the skin. They are usually pigmented and darker than surrounding skin. New moles that appear or moles that change need to be checked by a doctor.
Skin tags in children
Skin tags are rare in children. There’s a childhood viral condition called molluscum contagiosum which you might confuse for skin tags. Like tags, these are commonly found in the armpits, groin and behind the knees. The lesions however are circular spots with a central dimple rather than a tag rising from the skin surface. Although harmless molluscum contagiosum can be a bit itchy and spread to other parts of the body. It usually goes away by itself in a few months.
⚠️ Don’t diagnose your own skin lesions. It’s important to see a doctor if you have a new lesion or there are any changes to existing ones.
Are skin tags ever a problem?
Skin tags are benign skin lesions which are harmless. They aren’t contagious and simple skin tags don’t become cancerous. They can sometimes be inconvenient and many people want to have them removed because they don’t like the way they look.
If a tag is constantly irritated it can become a bit painful or even bleed. For example, a facial or armpit tag might get in the way of shaving and tags under the breast might get sore from a bra rubbing. Chest and neck tags can get caught on jewellery or zippers and skin tags on eyelids can obscure vision. Occasionally an irritated tag might get infected but this is rare.
Should you remove skin tags?
There’s no need to remove a tag unless it is causing you problems or you are uncomfortable with its appearance. Skin tag removal is largely considered a cosmetic procedure, so it’s usually necessary to seek private treatment from a dermatologist to have it carried out.
Sometimes skin tags fall off if they get twisted (which cuts off their blood supply) or accidentally caught on zips. There’s no evidence that removing a tag makes it more likely for another one to grow.
When a tag is removed, after some initial bleeding you may get an area of discoloured skin remaining. This tends to fade with time but you may be left with a tiny, permanent white area.
Skin tag removal treatments
The following skin tag removal treatments should be carried out by a trained medical professional with the exception of ligation. If your skin tag is small and has a thin stalk, your doctor may advise you to try tying off your own skin tag. Never attempt to remove large skin tags, they can bleed heavily.
There are four main methods used to remove skin tags:
1. Burn it off
This may be referred to as cauterisation, diathermy or electrosurgery.
2. Freeze it off
Cryotherapy or cryosurgery applies near freezing temperatures directly to skin lesions to remove them.
3. Cut it off
Known as excision, local anaesthetic is applied and then the tag removed using a surgical scalpel.
4. Tie it off
Ligation is the process where a thin piece of cotton is tied tightly around the base of the skin tag, close to the skin. This cuts off its blood supply and the tag eventually falls off.
Home treatment for skin tags
It’s very tempting to try to remove skin tags yourself. This is rarely advised because of the risk of bleeding and infection afterwards, particularly for larger tags. It’s also unwise to remove lesions that haven’t been diagnosed by a doctor.
Don’t try to remove any tags which are close to your eyes, this should be done by an eye specialist. Always make sure the skin is thoroughly cleaned with warm soapy water or an antiseptic and patted dry, before removing a tag.
Here are some of the common methods people use at home with comments about their application and success:
As mentioned above, a doctor may suggest you try tying off a tag. You can buy a skin tag removal band kit or use a thin piece of cotton or dental floss and tie it around the stalk of the tag as close to the skin as possible. The tag will gradually shrivel and fall off as its blood supply has been stopped. This can take a few days.
🔹 Home cryotherapy
You can buy home-freezing sprays to treat skin tags. Results can be varied and you often need multiple treatments, particularly for larger tags. There are restrictions for use including advice not to use them if you are diabetic, have a weak immune system of a bleeding disorder.
🔹 Tag removal creams and patches
A variety of patches impregnated with chemicals or natural formulas that you apply over skin tags are available. Reviews show that these are rarely successful and often cause irritation to the surrounding skin.
🔹 Duct tape
The use of duct tape to ‘suffocate’ verrucas is fairly common and some studies have shown a degree of success but using it to remove skin tags is unlikely to be successful.
🔹 Tea tree oil
Applying tea-tree oil for 10 minutes three times a day, for several days or weeks has been claimed to make skin tags fall off. This method is often used in conjunction with a duct tape patch. There is a high risk of skin irritation with this method and no medical evidence to back it up.
🔹 Apple cider vinegar
Using the same application method as tea-tree oil, the acidity of apple cider vinegar is anecdotally reported to make skin tags fall off. Again, there is little research and the risk of skin irritation is high.
Mashing up garlic until it forms a smooth paste which you can then apply to skin tags for an hour is claimed to remove them but as well as being very smelly, there is no evidence that this will work.
Slicing and rubbing raw ginger onto tags is another home remedy without good evidence of success but with a limited risk of side effects.
🔹 Baking soda
Another kitchen ingredient claimed by some to be useful for removing skin tags if mixed into a paste with a small amount of castor oil. The theory is that the alkalinity of the soda will irritate the skin of the tag and make it drop off.
This is usually done by accident when tags are on the axilla, beard area or groin. But sometimes people use a razor, scissors or clippers to remove small skin tags. This is not pain-free! There is a significant risk of infection and bleeding so this method should be avoided.
Last updated: 24-03-2021
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