Q: What causes skin tags, and how can I get rid of them?
A: Medically called acrochordons, these small, soft, flesh-colored (or darker) growths typically form on parts of the body where there are skin folds or creases, such as armpits, eyelids, groin, neck, and under breasts. Some people get them on their chest, abdomen, and back.
Attached by little “stalks,” they may arise due to friction of skin rubbing against skin or an irritant, such as a shirt collar, bra strap, or necklace—or, it’s proposed, they may simply result from normal skin-aging processes. Other possible factors include hormone imbalances and viral infections. There may be a genetic component as well.
Skin tags increase with obesity, during pregnancy, and with increasing age. At least half of all people over age 50 have one or more. They have also been associated with insulin resistance, diabetes, high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides, hypertension, and elevated C-reactive protein (an indicator of systemic inflammation in the body), suggesting that they may be a marker for increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
The growths are benign but, depending on their location and size, they can become irritated and even bleed. On occasion, a skin tag twists on its stalk, cutting off its blood supply and causing pain. If one is uncomfortable, is continually getting snagged on clothing or jewelry, or is just unsightly to you, it can be frozen off (using liquid nitrogen cryotherapy), burned off (electrodessication or electrocautery), or snipped off (with medical scissors or blade) in the doctor’s office. Insurance and Medicare won’t cover this if it’s done for cosmetic reasons.
Don’t cut off a skin tag yourself: This can cause bleeding and possibly infection and scarring. Over-the-counter creams and other topical products are of questionable value or ineffective, especially ones containing homeopathic ingredients.
If you have a skin tag and notice any changes, or if it becomes uncomfortable or painful, see your primary care provider or a dermatologist. If it’s a cosmetic issue, you can discuss with your doctor alternative ways to remove it, such as tying it off with thread or dental floss.
Also see How to Perform a Skin Exam.