There are certain things you should never ask the Internet — paramount among them is medical advice. Take the seemingly harmless query: What to do about a skin tag? Among the top results Google spits out are some seriously dubious DIYs (including one that involves cutting off your blood flow with dental floss).
We get the logic: If skin tags are harmless (which any derm will tell you they are), why can’t we just remove them ourselves? Well, it turns out there are a host of reasons why you should leave even a simple snip to a pro. Below, three board-certified derms answer the web's three biggest skin tag questions — and set the record straight.
What is a skin tag?
“Skin tags are composed of skin that forms on a stalk,” explains Ava Shamban, MD, a dermatologist based in Beverly Hills. These growths often pop up along the neckline, under breasts, and near armpits. Though skin tags are harmless and extremely common, according to dermatologist Jessica Wu, MD, they can become irritated when rubbing against clothing or necklaces.
Why do skin tags appear?
The Internet is flooded with theories as to why skin tags pop up, including having had too much sun damage as a kid, poor circulation, or increased sun sensitivity from using too many skin-care actives (like alpha and beta hydroxy acids or retinoids). But our derms debunk these myths.
As New York-based dermatologist Sejal Shah, MD, explains, we don’t exactly know why skin tags pop up. “One contributing factor may be friction between skin and clothing or adjacent areas of skin, which may explain why we often see them in skin folds. They are also more common in overweight or obese individuals,” she says, pointing to a study that correlates increased BMI with the growths. “Other associated or causative factors that have been proposed include family history, hormonal changes of pregnancy, and impaired glucose metabolism.” Furthermore, Dr. Shamban notes that hormonal changes (such as perimenopause) may, inexplicably, contribute to the formation of skin tags. But really, most of these are only theories.
What’s the best way to remove a skin tag?
Proposed home remedies for eradicating skin tags include repeatedly applying cotton soaked with iodine, tea tree oil, or apple cider vinegar. But Dr. Wu says these likely won’t work. As for the bevy of over-the-counter removal creams and kits, the derm is also wary. “I don’t recommend using a tag removal cream. I’ve seen horrible, discolored scarring and open wounds develop as a result,” Dr. Wu says. “An at-home liquid nitrogen freezing kit may help if the skin tags are small. But be careful and use them sparingly — freezing can leave marks on those with deeper skin tones.”
So what is the right way to rid your body of these barnacles? Hit up a derm for their expertise. “If skin tags are narrow and tiny, I clip them off with sterile surgical scissors, which are very sharp and fine so they don’t traumatize the skin,” Dr. Wu says. “If they are larger and/or wide, I might use an electrical needle to zap the surface. This is less likely to scar if a patient has a deeper skin tone or if the tag is darker.”
Knowing the above, it may be tempting to take a pair of shears to a skin tag yourself. But as Dr. Wu notes, “You’re taking your chances. Every so often a patient comes in with an infection or bleeding that won’t stop.” Also if the growth is dark, grows quickly, and/or bleeds, it’s important to have it checked by a derm, as it may be a suspicious mole disguised as a skin tag.