What are skin tags?

Not to be confused with a pimple or wart, skin tags are tiny bits of useless flesh that marr one's face and other parts of the body. The good news is, they can be removed.

These days, if someone mentions "tag", it's quite likely that they're talking about tagging someone on Facebook. For those unfamiliar with social network jargon, it means linking a friend to a picture, statement or a link.

But way before Facebook came to be, there were skin tags.

Senior consultant dermatologist Dr Steven Chow Kim Weng explains.

"Skin tags are redundant small growths of the skin, usually ranging from 1mm to 3mm. They are soft, and can be flattish (leaf-like) or nodular (like a pea or grain). They are normally brown or black, and found on the folded areas of the body like the neck, armpits or groin area. They are attached to the underlying skin by a thin neck of tissue (a stalk), and can bleed profusely when this tissue is torn or cut. Skin tags are non-cancereous," he says.

How are they different from warts or moles?

According to Dr Chow, a wart is a skin lesion caused by infection by the human papilloma virus. They commonly present as hard pea-size growths over the palms and soles. They are usually skin-coloured and firmly attached to the underlying skin.

Skin tags, which are harmless, are sometimes confused with warts, which can be mildly contagious. The medical name for skin tag is acrochordon.

A mole, on the other hand, is a brown or blackish pigmented growth consisting of a collection of pigment forming cell of the skin. They can be flat or lumpy, and can be found in any pigment bearing areas of the skin.

"There is a condition called acathosis nigricans whereby the fold areas of the skin is covered with thick velvety pigmented rows of folded redundant skin, very much like accumulated skin tags that have amalgamated together," adds Dr Chow.

Skin tags could also be confused with wart infections of the fold areas.

Why does one get skin tags?

More often than not, it's chronologically linked, but most people will have some skin tags by the time they reach late middle age, says Dr Chow. People who are overweight are also more prone to skin tags.

Consultant dermatologist Dr Ko Chung Beng says many people are predisposed to skin tags because their genetic make up. Skin tags can also develop due to friction, which stimulates the skin cells around the area to multiply, resulting in an "overgrowth" of skin.

"Pregnant women may develop skin tags because of hormonal changes that induce skin 'overgrowth'. After delivery, hormonal balance is slowly restored and quite often, some of the finer skin tags may disappear. However, the bigger ones never go away," explains Dr Ko.

Gender or racial make up are not consequential factors and Dr Ko says he does not know of any study that states these two reasons as the contributing cause of prevalence of skin tags. Most people choose to have them removed because they are unsightly. Treatment is mainly by surgical removal or destruction of the skin tag under local anaesthesia. This can be done using cautery, laser, radio-frequency ablation or simple scissor excision.

"This is usually an office procedure, normally over in less than an hour. There are usually no post-operative problems," says Dr Chow.

Some skin tags might bleed or get infected because of friction with other surfaces, and these, he says, should be removed. "It is highly unlikely for skin tags to turn cancerous. Signs to watch out for are unusual bleeding with contact and unusual progressive increase in size of the skin lesions."

Home remedies to remove skin tags include tying the tag with a fine thread and strangulating it until the dried up skin eventually drops off on its own, or using a caustic liquid to burn it.

Dr Chow cautions against such home remedies as they may cause undue irritation and inflammation.

Some tout that topical creams can be used to treat skin tags. He doesn't recommended these either as they are irritating and corrosive.

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