Skin tags are not cancerous and cannot become cancerous. However, skin tags can look similar to some skin growths caused by cancer. Some types of tumors may also look like infected skin tags.

Skin tags are not something to worry about. However, if a skin tag shows signs of infection, including pain, bleeding, or new growth, it is important to speak with a healthcare professional.

This article explains whether or not skin tags are cancerous, the causes of skin tags, how to recognize them, when to contact a doctor, diagnosis, and removal, if necessary.

Skin tags are not cancerous and have a very low or no risk of becoming cancerous. Nearly half of all adults in the United States have one or more skin tags.

Skin tags contain loosely arranged collagen fibers and blood vessels encased in a thicker or thinner surface layer of the skin, the epidermis.

Collagen is a large family of proteins present in most bodily tissues. It is very important for skin structure and a major component of the middle, thickest skin layer, or the dermis.

Skin tags are also known as:

  • acrochordons
  • papillomas, a general term for benign skin tumors
  • fibroepithelial polyps, skin growths made of fibrous tissue and the upper skin layers

Although skin tags themselves are not cancerous, they can look similar to tumors associated with types of skin cancer — particularly basal cell carcinoma (BCC) or malignant melanoma. Also, tumors can sometimes resemble irritated or infarcted skin tags.

Doctors do not know why skin tags develop. However, there are several theories as to why they occur, including:

Skin tags are usually painless, but may be itchy or become painful when they catch or rub against jewelry or clothing. They may also alter the skin’s appearance. In some people, they may also cause emotional distress.

Skin tags tend to grow in places where the skin folds, such as the:

  • groin
  • underarms
  • neck
  • eyelids

Skin tags often appear to hang off of the skin. They can vary in appearance, but they are typically:

  • skin-colored or brown, or pink or red, especially after irritation
  • oval shaped
  • soft
  • attached to a fleshy stalk
  • 2–5 millimeters to several centimeters across
  • thread-like in appearance
  • in clusters or strings, especially around the neck

Conditions that look similar

Importantly, skin tags can sometimes look like growths associated with other skin conditions, such as:

The chance of developing skin tags tends to increase with age. Skin tags can develop starting in someone’s teenage years or 20s. However, most people will stop developing new skin tags after the age of 70 years.

Skin tags may become painful, sore, or irritated due to injury, such as if they catch on clothing or jewelry. Friction with clothing can occasionally cause bleeding.

Skin tags may also become infected, which may be more common for people with obesity. Signs of infection include pain, redness, and swelling.

A person should speak with a doctor if they notice a skin tag growing in size. The doctor may recommend removing it. However, people may also experience complications after a doctor removes a skin tag, such as scarring and infection.

People should also speak with a healthcare professional if a skin tag becomes painful. A healthcare professional can provide an accurate diagnosis and recommend proper treatment.

Most skin tags are harmless. However, those that develop on long, narrow stalks can twist, reducing blood flow to the growth. If this occurs, the skin tag can become black or dark brown.

A person can talk with a doctor if their skin tag changes in feel, color, appearance, or size. They should also talk with a doctor about painful skin tags and those that cause physical discomfort or emotional distress.

A doctor can rule out other causes of skin growths that may be harmful, including skin cancer. They can also reassure people with skin tags that the growths are common and no cause for concern.

Doctors can often diagnose skin tags simply by examining them.

They may only perform a biopsy, or collect a tiny sample of the growth to examine using a microscope, if the cause is unclear. A doctor may send removed skin tags for pathological evaluation to determine the precise cause.

There are no specific laboratory, radiographic, or other diagnostic tests to diagnose skin tags. For this reason, the doctor may run other tests to rule out other potential causes.

They may also run tests to check for conditions that could cause or worsen skin tags, such as diabetes or metabolic syndrome.

This may mean evaluating someone’s:

Skin tags typically do not need removing. However, if they are irritating, uncomfortable, painful, large, or in an awkward location, a doctor or surgeon can remove them using one of several methods.

These include:

  • surgical excision, cutting it out using scissors or other cutting tools
  • electrocautery
  • CO2 laser therapy
  • cryotherapy, freezing it off using liquid nitrogen
  • ligation, which uses a suture wrapped around the neck of the tag to stop blood flow
  • shave excision, shaving or snipping it off after injecting the base with local anesthetics
  • radiocautery, burning it off using radio waves

Typically, with professional removal, it only takes one session to remove a skin tag. However, a doctor may also schedule follow-up visits to ensure that the skin heals properly and that no further treatments are necessary.

Doctors may advise people with skin tags to maintain a moderate weight and practice healthful habits, such as getting enough exercise, staying hydrated, and getting enough rest.

Adopting these habits may help reduce the chance of developing new skin tags. Also, wearing loose clothing and not wearing jewelry in places that may come into contact with skin tags can help reduce irritation.

Skin tags are usually harmless. Most only require removal if they are causing pain, irritation, or emotional distress or change in size, shape, or color.

People should never attempt to remove or damage skin tags at home. Only doctors, and ideally dermatologists, should remove skin tags. This is to reduce the risk of excessive bleeding, scarring, and infection.

Removing a skin growth at home also increases the likelihood that a potentially cancerous or harmful growth will go undetected and spread or worsen.