Like most moles and birthmarks, skin tags are pretty harmless. Found on or nearby eyelids, armpits and the neck and groin areas to name a few, they are incredibly common and, of course, entirely normal. But for those who may find them inconvenient or aesthetically undesirable, there are numerous avenues you can explore to remove them.
What Are Skin Tags?
Firstly, it’s important to know exactly what skin tags are. Most commonly born out of friction between the skin (also known as chafing), these soft lesions come in a range of shapes and sizes, from a tiny grain of rice to the size of a pea, and they can be either skin-coloured or pigmented. "Appearing individually or in crops, skin tags – unlike warts and verrucas – are not caused by a virus," explains dermatologist and medical director at Eudelo, Dr Stefanie Williams. "This means they don’t 'spread' like an infection and neither are they infectious to others."
What Causes Skin Tags?
Their benign nature has resulted in very little research being carried out to understand skin tags. According to Dr Williams, people over 50, those who have diabetes and individuals with high levels of triglycerides (lipids linked to cardiovascular disease) in their blood are more prone to skin tags. A handful of medical professionals believe there could also be a genetic component, as anecdotal evidence suggests the condition can run in families.
Whatever the cause, skin tag removal is often not available on the NHS as it is not deemed medically necessary. In some cases, for example if the skin tag is causing secondary issues like bleeding and discomfort, NHS treatment may be available if referred by a GP.
How Can You Remove A Skin Tag Professionally?
Alternatively, private removal via a dermatologist can start from £195, and that’s usually for one single skin tag. Small skin tags are straightforward to remove and can be done nonsurgically by a dermatologist or GP. Cryotherapy is one popular approach among experts, which involves the use of extreme cold (liquid nitrogen) to 'freeze off' the tag. Patients are expected to notice the tag fall off within 10 days of treatment. However, it isn’t unusual for a blister to form in the area where the nitrogen was applied, which can lead to post-inflammatory pigmentation.
Cauterisation is another avenue. This occurs by way of an electrosurgical device which essentially burns off the growth and often leaves fewer marks post-removal. If the skin tag is bigger in size, it may need to be removed by a doctor under local anaesthesia, then cauterised or surgically ablated (or 'shaved') off. In most cases there are no stitches needed and no downtime, and all that remains is a piece of dry skin which tends to drop off 1-2 weeks later. Both procedures are reported to be uncomfortable but relatively painless and bleeding is uncommon.
Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, aesthetic medicine doctor at Adonia Medical Clinic elaborates on the professional procedure. "Depending on your skin type, prior to removing a skin tag the skin is initially prepared with 'at-home' topical products to reduce the risk of scarring," she said. The lesion is then fully assessed to ensure it is safe to remove. "Removal takes 5-25 minutes depending on the size and location of the tag," continued Dr Ejikeme. "Recovery takes around 4-14 days and at-home antibacterial and soothing products are given to aid healing."
Can You Remove Skin Tags At Home?
Considering dermatologist appointments can be few and far between, not to mention expensive, numerous individuals are taking skin tag removal into their own hands. A quick search on Reddit uncovers a number of threads dedicated to their removal. From chopping them off with nail clippers (yes, really) to regularly applying apple cider vinegar, and even tying dental floss around them until the blood circulation dies, there are multiple methods which people are willing to give a go. This year has also seen a rise in dedicated over-the-counter kits which 'freeze' or 'suffocate' tags. But is DIY-ing it the safest route to tag-free skin?
Brands like Cryotag claim to use the same freezing technology employed by doctors and dermatologists. The isobutane-based spray targets the skin tag and not the surrounding skin, promising a result after two weeks.
Similar to the aforementioned string method, kits available at various UK pharmacies like the Excilor Skin Tag Treatment, £24.99, claim to offer a natural method by way of a device which stops the flow of blood to the tag. The kit advises placing a plaster over the 'dying' tag for 6 days, by which point it should have fallen off.
That said, most medical professionals believe skin tag removal should be done by a doctor or a trained dermatologist (always be sure to check their credentials on the General Medical Council register). Contrary to lots of advice online, Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Great Skin does not recommend undertaking skin tag removal yourself and warns of potential risk of bleeding and even infection, as it is difficult to ensure sterility in a non-medical setting.
This is something Dr Ejikeme seconds. "I would err on the side of caution when considering at-home self-removal devices. As well as bleeding, removing skin tags can lead to scars if done incorrectly. Scars can take the form of ulcers or dents in the skin or increased pigmentation after removal. This can usually be prevented by an experienced doctor."
As well as this, Dr Ejikeme hits home the importance of knowing for sure whether you’re actually dealing with a skin tag or whether it might be something else entirely. Dr Williams explains further. "While true skin tags are harmless and can’t turn into a skin cancer, sometimes a mole or another type of skin lesion may mimic the appearance of a skin tag," she said. "First and foremost, it is best to have them looked at by a dermatologist or GP with skin knowledge before taking any action." This is especially crucial if you’re still interested in going it alone.
In addition, experts argue that it is worth getting your blood tested to ensure that your skin tags are not early warning signs of insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease or other underlying medical conditions.