Skin tags may be annoying, but are they dangerous?

What are skin tags?
WATCH: What are skin tags?

Those soft, small pieces of skin that dangle under your armpits have a name: skin tags.

While often harmless, skin tags most commonly appear where skin creases or folds, like on the neck, armpits, around the groin or under breasts.

“They are typically slightly elevated, and may appear as stalk-like or pedunculated lesions,” said Dr. Sonya Cook, a dermatologist at Toronto’s Compass Dermatology.

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About one in four Canadians have skin tags, and they are among the most common benign skin tumours seen by family doctors, according to an article in medical journal Canadian Family Physician.

Skin tags vary in shape and can range in size from a few millimetres to the size of a pea. They are often skin-coloured or slightly pigmented, Cook said.

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What causes skin tags?

There’s no clear research explaining why skin tags occur, Cook said, but they typically appear in places where skin rubs against itself. The constant friction is believed to play a role in their development.

Skin tags are loose collagen fibres and blood vessels surrounded by skin, the U.K.’s National Health Service says. People who have Type 2 diabetes or are obese are more prone to developing them, as are pregnant women due to hormonal changes.

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There may also be a genetic component to skin tags, said Dr. Anatoli Freiman, a dermatologist at the Toronto Dermatology Centre.

“Some people are just more predisposed to getting them,” he said, highlighting the fact that they are very common.

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But unlike warts, these soft lesions are not contagious.

How can you get rid of skin tags?

You don’t really need to get rid of skin tags unless they are bothering you. Some people choose to have them removed for cosmetic reasons, or because they are in uncomfortable places.

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If you do want a skin tag removed, it’s best to talk to your health-care provider, said Freiman. Self-removal runs the risk of infection and scarring, he said.

People can also mistake skin cancer growths for skin tags, Freiman pointed out, making it very important for people to seek medical advice for a proper diagnosis.

There are a few ways to remove skin tags.

Cook said small skin tags may be removed with electrocautery, which is done by medical professionals and uses an electrical current to create heat to remove the skin tag.

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Cryotherapy is another treatment option, which freezes the skin tag for removal.

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“We can sometimes snip them off with certain instruments,” Freiman added.

The cost of removing skin tags can range from $100 to $300 depending on treatment and how many skin tags you have, Freiman said.

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The important thing is you don’t cut off skin tags at home with scissors, for example, or rip them off with your hands. Freiman stresses this can be dangerous.

“We see patients at least a few times a month who try an at-home method of removing the skin tags and they run into problems such as bleeding, complications and pigmentation changes — which are very difficult to reverse.”

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