Skin tags, medically termed “acrochordons,” are tiny, benign tumors that can be frustrating to deal with. The word “tumor” is a frightening one, but in this case, skin tags are perfectly harmless in almost every single instance. There is no research producing a link between the appearance of skin tags and the development of future cancer. That said, skin tags can become irritated with repeated contact or friction, and they are cosmetically undesirable in most cases, prompting people to remove them when feasible. Fortunately, general practitioners can easily do so, and the treatment is curative, so once the skin tag is gone, it’s gone.
What is a skin tag and where do they come from?
Skin tags are unremarkable in appearance. They are usually similar in size to a grain of rice, though some can be as large as half an inch long (though these are rare). Skin tags are usually flesh-colored, though in lighter skinned patients, the tags often present as darker than the surrounding skin. Both smooth and wrinkled skin tags are common, and most are connected to the body with a thin stalk of skin, referred to as a peduncle.
If the appearance of skin tags sounds mundane, then so is their composition. All skin tags consist of fibrous and vascular tissue, wrapped in a typical epidermis. Occasionally, fat cells may also be found inside a skin tag.
There isn’t a clearly defined cause behind skin tags, though doctors believe that it is a combination of genetic factors and excessive friction applied to the skin. Most skin tags are found in skin folds and creases, including the armpits and in areas where clothing rubs up against the skin. As a result, skin tags are more common in obese and older patients. Among the entire population, skin tags are found in close to half of all people, making them among the more common dermatological conditions in the world. For unknown reasons, patients with higher levels of insulin or blood sugar are more likely to suffer from skin tags. This has led some researchers to believe that skin tags could serve as a marker for Type 2 diabetes, though the link hasn’t been established as of yet.
What can be done about skin tags?
It’s important to stress that skin tags are rarely a medical concern. If left alone, they will not progress into something threatening to the patient’s health. However, skin tags can be frustrating to deal with if they are frequently irritated, which is often the case, given that they usually develop near skin folds and creases. Many patients also see skin tags in the same light as blemishes like pimples – as in, something cosmetically problematic that should be removed, if possible. Primary care physicians, then, almost always remove skin tags when their patients express concerns with cosmetics or skin irritation.
Fortunately, skin tags are easy to remove and require no special training to treat. Removal procedures are nearly always an out-patient process and can be done in a general practitioner’s office. There are several approaches to removal, including:
1. Cauterization – Cauterization is the process of burning tissue away, though this is an extremely controlled procedure in medical applications. An open flame is never applied to the skin tag. Instead, most practitioners utilize electrocauterization, which leverages an electrical current to conduct heat from a probe to the skin tag. Cauterizing probes are designed so that they do not interfere with the body’s other electrical activity so that they do not unintentionally damage tissue away from the treatment area. This makes electrocauterization the safest and most precise form of cauterization available. Cauterization also has the desirable effect of preventing bleeding.
2. Cryotherapy – Cryotherapy is the exact opposite of cauterization, instead using extreme cold to remove unwanted tissue from the body. Cryotherapy’s primary therapeutic application is the removal of problematic skin tissue, including skin tags. It can also be used to treat warts, moles and various skin cancers. Cryosurgery, which combines cryotherapy and surgery, can even be employed to treat bone tumors.
Cryotherapy works by freezing the tissue, resulting in the growth of ice crystals inside skin cells. The expanding ice crystals tear the skin cells apart, and this freezing effect migrates through local blood vessels, causing them to freeze and accelerate the effect.
It is a minimally invasive form of treatment and results in little pain or scarring. It is also very affordable. In most cases, only mild redness and pain lingers, and this can be neutralized with the use of pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
3. Excision – Excision is the surgical removal of tissue and can be employed for skin tags as well. It is rare for general practitioners to recommend this course of treatment, as surgery presents its own potential complications, and other forms of removal are considered perfectly efficient and safe.
It’s true that skin tags don’t warrant an immediate medical response. They rarely warrant a medical response at all. But when they are located on highly visible places like the face or neck, or create frequent irritation, they may need to be dealt with. Fortunately, the treatment that general practitioners can offer is virtually painless and works every time.