A skin tag is a small (benign) tag of skin which may have a peduncle (stalk) - they look like a small piece of soft, hanging skin. Skin tags are also known as an acrochordon, cutaneous papilloma, cutaneous tag, fibroepithelial polyp, fibroma molluscum, fibroma pendulum, soft fibroma, and Templeton skin tags.
Skin tags can appear on any part of the surface of the body (skin), but most occur in areas where skin may rub against skin or clothing, such as the:1
- Axillae (armpits)
- Under the breasts
- Upper chest
- Neck (papilloma colli).
Here are some key points about skin tags. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Skin tags are benign tumors of the skin.
- Some people are more susceptible to skin tags than others.
- Skin tags commonly occur in creases or folds of the skin.
- Obesity and diabetes may increase the risk of skin tags developing.
- Skin tags are typically removed for aesthetic and cosmetic reasons.
- Methods of skin tag removal include excision and cryotherapy.
- There are some over-the-counter solutions available for skin tags.
- There is no evidence to suggest that removing a skin tag causes more to develop.
What are skin tags?
Skin tags are invariably benign - non cancerous - tumors of the skin which cause no symptoms, unless it is repeatedly rubbed or scratched, as may happen with clothing, jewelry, or when shaving. Very large skin tags may burst under pressure.
Skin tags are benign, asymptomatic skin tumors, often raised from the skin on fleshy peduncles.
Skin tags are composed of a core of fibers and ducts, nerve cells, fat cells, and a covering or epidermis.
Some people inherit an increased susceptibility to skin tags, and being obese or overweight also appears to increase the likelihood of developing this skin anomaly. Skin tags affect people of all genders equally, but are more likely to occur in people who are pregnant and/or who have diabetes and have been associated with hyperinsulinaemia.1,2Some people may have had skin tags and never noticed them - they would have rubbed or fallen off painlessly. In most cases, however, they do not fall off.
The surface of skin tags may be smooth or irregular in appearance, they are often raised from the surface of the skin on fleshy peduncles (stalks). They are usually flesh-colored or slightly brownish.
Initially they are quite small, flattened like a pinhead bump. Skin tags can range in diameter from 2mm to 1cm; some may even reach 5cm.
As skin tags more commonly occur in skin creases or fold, it is believed they are mainly caused by skin rubbing against skin.
What causes skin tags?
Skin tags are very common and generally occur after midlife. They are said to be caused by bunches of collagen and blood vessels which are trapped inside thicker bits of skin.
They are believed to be the result of skin rubbing against skin. That is why they are generally found in skin creases and folds.
Risk factors for skin tags
A risk factor is something which increases the likelihood of developing a condition or disease. For example, obesity significantly raises the risk of developing diabetes type 2. Therefore, obesity is a risk factor for diabetes type 2.
Skin tags are more common in:
- People who are overweight and obese - partly because they have more skin folds and creases, and because of associated hyperinsulinaemia and inflammation2
- Pregnancy - most likely because of hormonal changes1
- Individuals with diabetes
- People with the human papilloma virus (low-risk HPV 6 and 11)5
- Sex steroid imbalance - changes in levels of estrogen and progesterone (sex steroid hormones) may increase the risk of developing skin tags.7
A study involving 98 patients and 103 controls found that people with multiple skin tags were much more likely to have insulin resistance, even when other risk factors were taken into account. This association between skin tags and insulin resistance was also found in a survey of 113 patients and 31 controls.4
The same survey found that skin tags were also associated with obesity, dyslipidemia (such as high cholesterol levels), hypertension (high blood pressure), and elevated high-sensitive C-reactive protein (a marker for inflammation). This suggests that skin tags may offer an external sign of an increased risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.8
According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health), USA, approximately 46% of people have skin tags. Around 59% of people have skin tags by the time they are 70 years old.7
A causal genetic component is thought to exist, i.e. susceptibility may be genetic. People with close family members who have skin tags are more likely to develop them themselves.
Skin tags are rarely associated with:
- Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome
- Polycystic ovary syndrome.
Birt-Hogg-Dubé (BHD) syndrome is a rare genetic condition characterized by skin tumors, including multiple fibrofolliculomas, trichodiscomas and acrochordon (skin tags). Patients with BHD tend to also develop carcinomas (cancerous tumors) in the kidneys and colon.3
On the next page, we look at the options for removing and treating skin tags.