Skin tags are small, non-cancerous growths that seem to randomly develop on your skin, especially in your armpits, neck, groin and other areas where your skin naturally folds. They’re made up of skin cells, collagen fibers, nerve cells, fat and blood vessels, and attach to your skin by a thin, fleshy cylinder called a stalk.
Clinically known as acrochordons, skin tags usually start out small — between 1 and 5 mm — but can grow to several centimeters over time. They may be the same color as your skin or dark brown. Skin tags are not harmful, but if you notice a rapid change in the size, color or shape of a skin tag, have your doctor check it to rule out other conditions.
Though skin tags are painless, they can be a nuisance. Depending where they are on the body, they may get caught on clothing or necklaces, and may bleed from repeated rubbing against clothing. Should they become irritating, it’s important to know how to safely remove skin tags.
About half of all adults will develop at least one skin tag in their lifetime. People can develop skin tags as early as their 20s, but they are most common after age 40. More tend to appear with age. Once a skin tag has developed, it’s almost always there for life.
Experts don’t know what causes skin tags, but they may “run in the family.” They’re also more common among those with certain health conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, human papilloma virus (HPV) and a genetic disorder called Birt-Hogg-Dube Syndrome. It’s also possible that skin tags form as a result of skin-to-skin friction and irritation in body folds, or that they are a normal consequence of aging.
Skin tags are harmless, so there’s no need to concern yourself with them unless you notice changes, or they become painful. Still, some people find them bothersome or unsightly and want them removed. While there are a variety of at-home treatments to remove skin tags floating around the internet — such as applying toothpaste, garlic or apple cider vinegar — it’s a bad idea to try to do it yourself.
“There’s no clinical evidence that toothpaste or any other home remedies are effective in removing skin tags, and you risk infecting or irritating the skin,” says Maryam Afshar, MD, a dermatologist at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines. “Also, avoid trying to shave or cut them off, which can also lead to severe bleeding, infection or scarring.”
The best way to remove skin tags is to make an appointment with a dermatologist, who can do it safely and effectively in a sterile environment. Most skin tags can be removed right in the doctor’s office using one of these methods:
Your doctor will numb the area and snip off the skin tag.
Using an electrified wire, your doctor will burn through the stalk that attaches the tag to your skin. The heat helps minimize bleeding.
Your doctor will apply cold liquid nitrogen to the tag, which will freeze and fall off. It may leave a small blister that will heal on its own in a few days.
A special laser is used to remove the skin tag; your doctor may numb the area first. Laser removal may leave a tiny wound that will heal.
Removing a skin tag is generally a low-risk procedure, but bleeding from the site is common. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions on caring for the removal site at home to help prevent infection.
“If you’re concerned about skin tags, make an appointment to talk about having them removed,” says Dr. Afshar. “It’s a quick and simple procedure, and it’s permanent, so the tags won’t grow back.”