If you’ve ever found an extraneous nub of tissue protruding from your skin—especially around your neck, armpits, or groin—you’re not alone. Known to doctors as acrochordons, skin tags are growths, most often found in the folds of your skin, like in your armpits. While it can be alarming to see any kind of growth on your skin, skin tags are completely harmless, and very common. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, they occur in as much as half the adult population. Here’s what you should know about skin tags—including how to remove them.
What are skin tags, exactly?
Technically, a skin tag is a benign (non-cancerous) tumor made up of collagen fibers, capillaries, and lymphatic vessels. They’re usually flesh colored, about the size of a grain of rice, and look like a little flap of skin connected to the body by a small stalk of tissue called a peduncle. While they’re most commonly found in the folds of your skin around your armpits, groin, neck, and sometimes eyelids, they can appear elsewhere on the body, too. They tend to affect middle-aged people more than young people, but they can happen to anyone.
What causes skin tags?
Scientists don’t really know what causes skin tags. The friction of skin rubbing on skin may play a role, which would explain why they tend to form in the folds of your armpits and neck. There may be a genetic component, too—if your parents are prone to skin tags, you probably are as well. Recent studies have also linked a higher incidence of skin tags to conditions like obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and insulin resistance. Hormonal changes seem to play a role, too, since many women develop skin tags during pregnancy. Studies of biopsied skin tags have found that some low-risk forms of the human papilloma virus (HPV) are often present in the tissue. However, the tags themselves are harmless (and not contagious), and they don't need to be treated.
How do I get rid of a skin tag?
Just because skin tags are common doesn’t mean they aren’t bothersome. If your skin tags irk you, either because they rub against clothing, or get caught in jewelry, or itch, or just because you don’t like the way they look, you may want to have them removed. If you do want to get rid of them, you have a few different options.
First off, most dermatologists recommend getting your skin tags checked out by a professional. It’s possible to misdiagnose them, and you don’t want to ignore a more serious medical issue. Your doctor can confirm that your lesions are, in fact, skin tags, and that they aren’t a sign of something like insulin resistance.
From there, there are a few different ways to remove skin tags. A doctor might cut it off with a scalpel, freeze it with liquid nitrogen (much like they would a wart), or cauterize it with an electric device.
Can I get rid of a skin tag at home?
Since skin tags aren’t harmful to your health, health insurance plans typically don’t cover removal services in a doctor’s office. It’s considered a cosmetic procedure, unless the skin tag is particularly irritating or prone to bleeding, and can cost hundreds of dollars out of pocket.
So it's no surprise that people would rather remove their skin tags without visiting a medical facility. Many dermatologists strongly recommend having a licensed doctor remove your skin tags rather than trying to excise them at home, cautioning that improper removal can result in infection and scarring. But some medical authorities say it's OK to remove small tags at home.
The UK’s NHS notes that if you have a small skin tag, it may be possible to remove it yourself with sterile (we repeat: sterile) scissors, though that seems like a pretty risky proposition to us. The health authority warns that you should never try to remove a large skin tag yourself because of the risk of bleeding. (Also, please do not attempt to remove a skin tag on your eyelids or other sensitive areas at home.)
There are a few at-home devices that are designed to be idiot-proof methods of removing skin tags. Mental Floss tested out Claritag’s skin tag removal device, which works very similarly to an at-home wart removal kit. Available from Amazon for $50 for 10 treatments, the dermatologist-developed gadget is much cheaper than a visit to the doctor. The easy-to-set up, tweezer-like device encloses your hanging skin tag with foam pads soaked in a liquid cooling agent, freezing the extraneous tissue. The treatment itself takes only a few seconds, and is designed to remove your skin tag within two weeks. (It simply falls off as the area underneath it heals.)
Other devices, like TagBand ($12.50 on Amazon), use a rubber band to cut off the blood supply to the skin tag, achieving the same result: The skin tag dies and falls off within a week or so.
However, while some websites recommend using essential oils like tea tree oil to treat skin tags, there’s no scientific evidence to show that those remedies work. That means you should probably stay away from the patch- and gel-based removal treatments that tout their natural ingredients.
If you have a large number of skin tags, have particularly large ones, or have them on your face, eyes, or groin, though, you're out of luck—you should go see a doctor to get them removed.