These small, soft growths hanging (literally) out on your neck or underarms are no fun, but harmless. But what causes skin tags in the first place?

By Melanie Rud
March 27, 2020
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There's no way around it: Skin tags are just not cute. More often than not, they elicit thoughts of other growths like warts, weird moles, and even mysterious-looking pimples. But despite their rep, skin tags are really NBD—not to mention, super common. In fact, up to 46 percent of Americans have skin tags, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Okay, so they're more common than you might have thought, but odds are you're still unsure what causes skin tags exactly. Ahead, top experts explain exactly what skin tags are, what causes them, and how you can safely and effectively get rid of them (warning this is not the time to DIY).

What are skin tags?

"Skin tags are painless, small, soft growths that can be pink, brownish, or skin-colored," says Gretchen Frieling, M.D., a triple board-certified dermatopathologist in the Boston area. The tags themselves contain blood vessels and collagen and are covered by skin, adds dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, M.D., president and co-founder of Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut. They pose no health risk, though they can become irritated, leading to redness, itching, and bleeding, notes Dr. Robinson. (More on what to do if that happens later.)

What causes skin tags?

The short answer: It's unclear. The long answer: There's no singular cause, though experts agree genetics definitely play a role.

Constant skin-on-skin friction can also cause skin tags, which is why they often crop up in areas of the body where the skin is creased or folded, such as the armpits, groin, under the breasts, eyelids, says Dr. Frieling. But this doesn't mean they don't occur in other areas; skin tags on the neck and chest are also common, she points out.

Many women may also develop them during pregnancy as a result of heightened estrogen levels, says Dr. Robinson. In fact, a small study found that about 20 percent of women experience dermatologic changes during pregnancy, of which around 12 percent were skin tags, specifically. One thought is that increased estrogen levels lead to larger blood vessels, which can then become trapped within thicker pieces of skin, although other hormonal changes may also contribute, according to research. (Related: Weird Pregnancy Side Effects That Are Actually Normal)

Are skin tags cancerous?

Skin tags themselves are benign, but they can start to become annoying if they're repeatedly getting caught on something like a razor or piece of jewelry, explains Dr. Robinson. Not to mention, some people may be bothered simply by their appearance, she adds.

So, if you're concerned about cancerous skin tags, don't be: "Skin tags aren't harmful and don't increase your risk of getting skin cancer," says Dr. Frieling.

That being said, "sometimes skin cancers can be written off as skin tags," says Dr. Robinson. "Your best bet is to always have any kind of new or evolving growth or mark looked at by your dermatologist." (Speaking of which, here's exactly how often you should have a skin exam.)

How can you remove skin tags?

Skin tags are more of a cosmetic nuisance than a real medical issue, but if one is bothering you, see your dermatologist to discussing having that bad boy removed.

If you do want to get rid of a skin tag, experts emphasize that you should not—we repeat do not—attempt to take matters into your own hands. At-home remedies using coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, or even tying off a skin tag with dental floss are all over the internet, but none of these are effective and can be dangerous, says Dr. Frieling. There's a risk of excess bleeding because skin tags contain blood vessels, adds Dr. Robinson.

The good news is your dermatologist can easily and safely take off a skin tag in several different ways. Smaller skin tags can be frozen off with liquid nitrogen as part of a procedure called cryotherapy (no, not the full-body cryotherapy tanks that supposedly help with muscle recovery).

Larger skin tags, on the other hand, are usually surgically cut off or removed via electric surgery (burning the tag with high-frequency electrical energy), says Dr. Frieling. Removing larger skin tags may also require some numbing cream or local anesthesia and potentially stitches, she adds. Your dermatologist will help decide which method is right for you based on the size of the skin tag and where it's located, though, generally speaking, "all of these procedures come with very low risks of complications and no recovery time," says Dr. Frieling.

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