Skin tags are not cancerous (benign) and cannot become cancerous. Although most skin tags do not need to be removed, a doctor can do so, if necessary.
In this article, learn about whether or not skin tags are cancerous.
This article also covers causes of skin tags, how to recognize them, when to contact a doctor, diagnosis, and removal (if necessary).
Skin tags contain loosely arranged collagen fibers and blood vessels encased in a thicker or thinner surface layer of the skin, or 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:
- 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.
These theories suggest that skin tags may occur due to:
- irritation or friction associated with skin-on-skin rubbing
- obesity, which means having more skin folds
- type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance
- human papillomavirus infections
- the skin condition Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome
- high levels of tissue and epidermal growth factors, especially during pregnancy or gigantism (acromegaly)
- hormone imbalances
- metabolic syndrome
- cardiovascular disease
- aging and the gradual loss of skin elasticity
- polycystic ovary syndrome
Skin tags are usually painless, but they 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:
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
- attached to a fleshy stalk
- 2–5 millimeters to several centimeters across
- thread-like in appearance
- in clusters or strings, especially around the neck
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.
Most skin tags are harmless. However, those that develop on long, narrow stalks can twist, thereby 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 will normally 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 known to potentially cause or worsen skin tags, such as diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
This may mean evaluating someone’s:
- A1c levels
- fasting and postprandial (after eating) blood glucose levels
- lipid profile
- body mass index (MBI)
Skin tags typically do not need to be removed. 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.
- surgical excision, which refers to cutting it out using scissors or other cutting tools
- electrocautery, which refers to delivering heat via an electric current
- CO2 laser therapy, which refers to using light-based energy
- cryosurgery, which refers to freezing it off using liquid nitrogen
- ligation, which refers to using a suture wrapped around the neck of the tag to stop blood flow
- shave excision, which refers to shaving or snipping it off after injecting the base with local anesthetics
- radiocautery, which refers to burning it off using radio waves
Most skin tags will heal on their own with proper care, such as moisturizing and basic hygiene. 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 are changing 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.