How to remove skin tags, causes and treatments

Take a good look at your birthday costume and you’ll likely find small, harmless growths called skin tags. Although they are common and nothing to worry about, you should report them to your dermatologist, especially if they are new. “To the untrained eye, it may look like a skin tag. But you don’t know that; you have to make sure it’s not skin cancer,” says Dr Manjula Jegasothy, Miami-based dermatologist.

(Getty Pictures)

What are skin tags?

A skin tag (the medical term is a skin tag) is an overgrowth of normal skin. “It can be a small round bump or a long, skinny tube. The typical size is between 1 and 3 millimeters in diameter and 1 to 4 millimeters in length,” says Jegasothy. “Some larger tags have a stalk that attaches them to the underlying skin.”

You can have one skin tag or hundreds of them, and they can appear in a range of colors. “Most often they are the color of your skin, but they can also be hyperpigmented, so they can be darker like a mole or they can be pink or red,” says Dr Barbara Vinci, a dermatologist based at Springfield, Ohio.

Other characteristics of skin tags:

  • They can develop anywhere on the body, but mostly occur in skin folds – under the arms, on the neck, on the eyelids, under the breasts, or near the groin or genitals.
  • They contain blood vessels.
  • They may contain nerve cells.

Causes of Skin Tags

Skin tags occur in about half of the population and become more common with age. It is not known why they develop. They are associated with:

  • Genetic. You can get skin tags if you have other family members who have had them.
  • A condition called Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome. “It’s a rare genetic syndrome, but it would be a case where you had more than your average amount of skin tags. But there would be other findings with that,” Vinci says. (Other findings could include problems lungs and kidneys.)
  • Hormonal fluctuations, such as pregnancy.

Skin tags are also associated with:

Jegasothy believes that weight gain is the common denominator in the development of skin tags. “There could be increased friction because you’ve gained weight. You may have diabetes because you are overweight. Everything goes hand in hand,” she notes.

Is skin tag removal necessary?

If your doctor tells you that the small growths on your body are skin tags, there is no need to remove them.

However, you may want to get rid of them if you don’t like the way they look or if they get irritated and bleed when they rub against your skin, clothes, or jewelry.

There may even be a chance that a skin tag is infected. “If you have a skin tag that twists on itself, it will cut off its blood supply, become painful as the skin dies, or break open and develop a sore. That’s when it’s time to see your doctor,” Vinci explains.

If your tag is infected, your doctor will prescribe a topical antibiotic, then remove the tag after the infection clears.

Skin Tag Treatments

Removal of skin tags takes place in a doctor’s office. There are several deletion methods.

  • Cut excision. “We clean the area, numb it with a shot of lidocaine, then cut the tag at the stem,” Vinci explains. “There’s usually some bleeding, and we stop the bleeding with aluminum chloride, a form of chemical cautery (burning the tissue to seal it off).”
  • Electrodesiccation (a form of cauterization using electricity). “We put a numbing cream on the area and the patient remains seated for 10 minutes. Then we hit the cautery machine on each skin tag and it shrivels like a Rice Krispy for a few days,” says Jegasothy. “There is no blood or pain. On the third day, the tag turns black. It falls on the fourth day. There is no mark, and it looks like you never had it. I find this to be the most effective way.
  • Cryotherapy (freezing technique using liquid nitrogen). “The tag will fall off on its own within two weeks. This may leave a small scar,” Vinci explains.

For electrodesiccation and cryotherapy, the tag should be covered with petroleum jelly and a bandage until the tag falls off.

Skin tags don’t normally grow back, but new ones can develop in the same general area.

Home Treatments for skin tags

Skin tag removal is considered a cosmetic procedure and is not covered by insurance. “Nationally, you can expect to pay $200 to $600 to remove a certain number of skin tags in an area. If it’s more than two or three millimeters, we’re obligated to send it to a pathology lab, which can also increase your price,” says Jegasothy.

Such costs may encourage you to remove the tag on your own, but doctors do not recommend it. “Don’t try to cut it at home. It hurts, and the biggest risks are infection and bleeding,” says Vinci.

What about home remedies like apple cider vinegar, wart removers, or essential oils marketed to remove skin tags? “They don’t work,” Vinci says. “And the danger with vinegar is that you can give yourself a chemical burn and a permanent scar.”

Prevention of skin tags

There’s no sure way to prevent skin tags, but maintaining a healthy weight is a good place to start. “Eat right and exercise. It’s the best prevention, but it’s not a guarantee,” says Jegasothy.

If you have easily irritated skin tags, take steps to minimize the problem.

  • Use a good moisturizer to reduce friction near a tag.
  • Avoid or limit wearing jewelry (such as necklaces) near a skin tag.
  • Avoid or limit the wearing of tight-fitting or synthetic clothing that can interfere with a skin tag.

Patricia J. Callender