Clipping Those Gnarly Skin Tags

Although benign and easily removed, skin tags may accompany diabetes

Skin tags (acrochordon) are bits of flesh that serve no true purpose. One population study tagged 48% of the population as carriers of these lesions. People who are overweight are particularly susceptible to the formation of skin tags. Skin tags increase in frequency through your 50s, and as many as 59% of septuagenarians (people in their 70s) have them.​

Although many insurers refuse to cover the cost of removal, skin tags can be easily removed by a primary care physician in an outpatient setting. However, skin tags may accompany a far more serious problem: type 2 diabetes.

What Are Skin Tags?

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Skin Tags
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Skin tags are small pieces of skin usually located on the neck and in the armpit area. However, they can also be elsewhere on the body, including the back, trunk, abdomen, and in various skin folds. Skin tags are either dark or flesh colored and no larger than 5 millimeters. Skin tags are usually painless but can become irritated if they catch on clothing or jewelry. Skin tags come in three forms:

  • Small bumps about 1 millimeter or 2 millimeters in width and height
  • Thread-like lesions about 2 millimeters in length
  • Bag-like (pedunculated) lesions that occur on the lower back

Nobody knows why skin tags form, but hormones, growth factors, and infection may all play a part.

Although skin tags can be confused with warts, neurofibromas, or nevi (moles), most physicians are quick to identify these unsightly little skin stickers. Very rarely are skin tags cancerous, and the vast majority require no biopsy.

Skin Tag Removal

Many people want their skin tags gone for cosmetic purposes or because of irritation. Here are some ways that skin tags are removed:

  • Small skin tags can be snipped off with a pair of iris scissors (no lidocaine or local anesthesia needed).
  • Larger skin tags can be shaved off (shave excision) after application of local anesthesia.
  • Skin tags can be frozen off using cryotherapy. A physician dips the tip of a pair of forceps into liquid nitrogen and grabs the lesion until it turns white. If you have a lot of skin tags, this quicker option works well.
  • Electrodesiccation involves the use of an electrical current to dry out the skin tag. This method can be used for skin tags that are too small to be grabbed with forceps.
  • A more experimental means of removal involves an application of a skin patch, which was found 65% effective in one case study.

Should a skin tag bleed on removal, a cotton tip applicator impregnated with aluminum chloride can be applied to stop the bleeding.

Diabetes and Skin Tags

In and of themselves, skin tags are benign (harmless), but they can indicate a serious condition: type 2 diabetes. If you're overweight, have skin tags, and haven't seen a doctor in some time, you may want to see a primary care physician to not only remove your skin tags but also, more importantly, to test (and treat) you for diabetes, if necessary.

In one Taiwanese study, 313 residents aged 65 and older at a home for retired veterans were surveyed for various skin changes associated with diabetes. Of those with diabetes, 22.9% had skin tags versus 14% who had skin tags and no diabetes. This suggests a possible link, but more data are required for this to be conclusive.

Generally, various other skin changes are more closely associated with diabetes, including chronic ulcers and acanthosis nigricans, darkened and thickened skin around the neck, thighs, and vulva. 

A Word From Verywell

Although you may figure that removing skin tags is as simple as grabbing a pair of scissors from the cupboard drawer, it isn't. First, the removal of skin tags should be performed by a trained healthcare professional who can do so in a sterile environment. Second, skin tags often accompany diabetes, a much more serious problem which requires medical attention.

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  1. Tseng HW, Ger LP, Liang CK, Liou HH, Lam HC. High prevalence of cutaneous manifestations in the elderly with diabetes mellitus: an institution-based cross-sectional study in TaiwanJ Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2015;29(8):1631–1635. doi:10.1111/jdv.12664

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