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Last updated August 3, 2020. 5 minute read

Acrochordon (skin tags): what are they and why do they appear?

Thankfully, skin tags are benign (harmless) growths and don’t need to be removed for health reasons. That said, if they’re bugging you—catching on clothing or jewelry, for example—or itchy or unattractive in your view, there are ways to remove them.

Written by Andrea Peirce
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

Skin tags, also known as acrochordons, are soft bits of extra skin that pop up on the body. They can appear anywhere but are particularly common in areas where skin rubs against skin, such as around the armpits, under the breasts, and in the groin area. They’re also common on the neck.

Thankfully, skin tags are benign (harmless) growths and don’t need to be removed for health reasons. That said, if they’re bugging you—catching on clothing or jewelry, for example—or itchy or unattractive in your view, there are ways to remove them.

Vitals

  • Skin tags (acrochordons) are small outgrowths of normal skin.
  • These benign (harmless) lesions can usually be left alone.
  • It’s unclear what causes skin tags, which are more common in people who have obesity or over age 50.
  • It’s relatively easy to remove most skin tags.

What are skin tags?

Skin tags are small outgrowths of normal skin, typically attached to the body by a thin fleshy stalk called a “peduncle.” They range in color from flesh-toned to darker brown or reddish and tend to be oval-shaped and small (1 to 5 millimeters in size—although larger ones are possible).
While most are painless, itching, and irritation from contact with clothing, rough fabric, or jewelry bother some people.

Note: Your dermatologist or other healthcare professional may refer to the skin tag as an “acrochordon” or another name, such as a fibroepithelial polyp, soft fibroma, or cutaneous papilloma or tag.

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Who gets skin tags?

Skin tags are common, especially in adults over age 50 whose skin has naturally lost some of its elasticity over the years—making it less likely to snap back in place. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD), nearly half of all adults have at least one of these lesions somewhere on the body.

While men and women are equally as likely to develop skin tags, certain conditions raise the risk. These include having obesity, having diabetes or metabolic syndrome, or inheriting a genetic disposition to developing the lesions.

What causes skin tags?

Doctors and researchers are still trying to figure out why people get skin tags. While the causes remain hazy and largely unconfirmed, there are several popular theories.

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A widely held belief is that skin tags are likely caused by friction, with the irritation of skin rubbing up against skin, leading to the buildup of extra tissue. This theory may help explain why acrochordons are so common in body folds—and more likely to develop in people who have excess weight or obesity, since extra weight likely means having more skin folds.

The development of skin tags has been associated with insulin resistance, a common blood sugar problem. According to this theory, hyperinsulinemia (excess insulin in the bloodstream, which occurs in response to excess blood sugar) activates receptors for insulin growth factors. These, in turn, trigger the growth of keratinocytes and fibroblasts—the two cell types involved in inflammation and skin repair and regeneration (González-Saldivar, 2017).

Notably, insulin resistance can develop into prediabetes and eventually type 2 diabetes—an illness that numerous studies over time have found is associated with skin tags.

Another common condition linked to skin tags is infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). Several studies have explored this association, including a 2018 Italian research study that found that in the 20 people with skin tags examined, 50% of the lesions contained HPV (Dianzani, 2018). To learn more about HPV, click here.

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Skin tags are common during pregnancy due to changes in hormonal changes, particularly in the second trimester, but tend to fade away after the pregnancy is over.
People with the rare inherited disorder, Birt-Hogg-Dube syndrome, tend to have many skin tags along with other skin and medical issues.

What are the treatment options for skin tags?

There’s usually no reason to have a skin tag removed unless the look or feel of it bothers you. But, if you want it gone, there are professional and even at-home treatment options to consider.
Ideally, a dermatologist or specially trained medical professional will perform one of the following procedures after discussing the pros and cons of each approach with you. Variables such as the size and location of the skin tag, as well as the risk for scarring, are important to consider.

(A caveat: lesions anywhere on or near the eyelid merit special care. To protect your vision, it’s wise to only let an ophthalmologist or eye specialist treat this area.)

Popular treatments include:

  • Cauterization: Small and superficial skin tags are burned off using electrolysis, a treatment approach that involves heat and an electric current.
  •  Cryosurgery (freezing): Using a probe containing liquid nitrogen, a healthcare provider freezes the skin tag and painlessly removes it with a scalpel. This is considered a very effective way to remove a lot of skin tags in one visit.
  • Scissor (snip) excision: With this approach, a healthcare provider cuts off smaller skin tags using short-blade “Iris scissors.” As long as the skin tag is small, no anesthesia is needed to numb the area beforehand. When the skin tag is on the larger side, a healthcare provider may recommend injecting the base with a local anesthetic and then shaving or snipping away the tag.

Most of the time, unless there’s some question about the diagnosis, these procedures don’t involve a biopsy of the tissue and are simple one-time office visits.

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While it’s usually better to have a dermatologist or other healthcare professional guide you on options when removing a skin tag—to make sure the lesion is, in fact, an acrochordon, and to minimize the risk of bleeding and infection—there are at-home approaches such as the following:

  • Freeze it yourself: Drug stores sell products that you apply at home to freeze the skin tag so that it falls off seven to ten days later.
  • Twist and hold: A dermatologist on the ACOD website indicates this can work (again, only if you’re positive it’s a skin tag): clean the area with alcohol, grab the skin tag, twist it, and hold it for a full 5 minutes before letting go. The skin tag should drop off in the coming week.

Conclusion

For most people, skin tags aren’t worth trying to get removed. But it’s a personal decision. Some just want them gone because of the way they look or feel. And that’s fine.

Regardless, it’s always smart to pay attention to what’s happening in your body and on your skin, and to reach out to your healthcare provider if you notice a skin tag starting to change notably in color or size.