DEAR DOCTOR K:
I have skin tags under my armpits. Are they dangerous? How can I remove them? What can I do to keep them from coming back?
I’ve had many patients ask me the same question. They’ve just noticed this little ball of skin sticking out from someplace on their body, and of course they’re concerned it could be cancer. Fortunately, it’s not, and it never will be.
Skin tags are common; about a quarter of all people develop them. Usually when you first notice a skin tag, it’s actually been there for some time, slowly growing.
A skin tag is a soft, skin-colored growth. Skin tags typically appear as people age. A skin tag at first may appear as a tiny, soft bump on the skin. Over time, it grows into a flesh-colored piece of skin that hangs from the surface of the skin on a thin piece of tissue called a stalk. It’s easy to move or wiggle a skin tag back and forth.
Skin tags probably develop in response to irritation. That’s why they appear most often in skin folds of the neck, armpits, torso, beneath the breasts or in the groin region — areas where the skin tends to get irritated. These areas often generate multiple skin tags during a person’s lifetime. Get rid of one, and a new one may start next year.
Many people develop multiple skin tags, and a tendency to develop skin tags may run in families. They often develop after weight gain or pregnancy. Sometimes skin tags that develop during pregnancy grow smaller after the baby is delivered. There is no way to prevent them.
A skin tag is painless. However, it can become irritated if it is rubbed a lot or if it is twisted on its stalk. That irritation is probably the most common reason that people want them removed.
Skin tags are permanent growths unless you have them taken off. Doctors usually remove skin tags with sharp scissors or a sharp blade. Less commonly, doctors remove them by freezing or burning them off at the stalk. Bleeding can be stopped with a chemical (aluminum chloride) or electric (cauterizing) treatment.
Now that you know what skin tags look like, and that they are not cancer, please understand that not every bump on the skin is just a skin tag. If you notice that a skin growth is too firm to be wiggled easily, is a different color than surrounding skin, is multicolored, or has raw or bleeding areas, ask your doctor to examine it. It could be skin cancer. Even after examining it, your doctor may not be sure and may want to do a biopsy. Cancers can be identified with certainty only by looking at them with a microscope.
Because skin tags are only a cosmetic concern, not a medical problem, most health insurance plans won’t pay for their removal. But if you find them unsightly, you do have options to have them taken off.