What Is a Skin Tumor?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Many people approach their family healthcare provider about a strange lump or mark on their skin. Most skin tumors are benign, but in some instances, they may be malignant growths.

There are several different types of tumors treated with various methods. Understanding the different types of tumors and how they are treated can help you seek the proper medical attention when needed.

Person points out a skin tag of concern

kwanchaichaiudom / Getty Images

Types

The majority of skin tumors are benign and only pose a cosmetic concern. Some of the most common types of benign skin tumors are as follows.

Seborrheic Keratosis

Seborrheic keratosis is most commonly seen on the face, shoulders, chest, or back, but can be found anywhere on the skin. Seborrheic keratoses vary in color from light brown to black and are raised and waxy in appearance. They often appear like they are stuck on the skin and are one of the most common benign skin tumors.

They are usually seen in middle-aged to older-aged adults. They are harmless and can be removed if causing cosmetic concern. However, if there is any doubt about the diagnosis of seborrheic keratosis, then a biopsy should be taken to confirm.

Cherry Angioma

Cherry angioma (Campbell de Morgan’s spot) is a small red papule (raised) or macule (flat) vascular spot that is benign. These are common, harmless, and the cause is unknown. It’s not often that they need to be treated, but laser therapy can be used for removal if they pose a cosmetic problem.

Nevus (Mole)

A nevus is also known as a mole or melanocytic nevus. Nevi are extremely common. They are usually round in shape with a smooth border and appear as a brown/pink bump or spot on the skin.

They are made up of melanocytes (a special type of skin cell that produces the skin-darkening pigment called melanin). They can appear at any stage of life, can be raised or flat, and can be found anywhere on the body.

Most people have at least one mole, and they are usually harmless. However, if a mole changes shape, color, size, or begins to bleed/crust, it might be a sign that skin cancer is developing. In this case, a biopsy will be needed to check for the presence of skin cancer. 

Sebaceous Hyperplasia

Sebaceous hyperplasia (senile hyperplasia) appear as dome-shaped, yellow, soft papules (raised bumps), some of which have a dip in the center. They usually appear on the face (forehead, nose, and cheeks) but can sometimes occur on the vulva.

They are benign; however, because they often look similar to basal cell carcinoma, a biopsy might be required to distinguish the diagnosis.

Actinic Keratosis

Actinic keratosis is also known as solar or senile keratosis. Found on areas that have been exposed to the sun, they present as rough, scaly plaques on the skin. These usually don’t appear until after the age of 40, since they are caused by years of sun exposure.

Although benign, if left untreated there is a 5% to 10% risk of actinic keratoses turning into squamous cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer). 

Keratoacanthoma

These types of lesions grow quickly and often occur in older adults due to sun exposure. They can grow to 2 centimeters (cm) or more in size over the short period of a few weeks. They often have a dip in the center, which is keratinous (rough/rigid and made of keratin).

It is recommended that a biopsy is taken and keratoacanthoma is treated due to presenting similarly to squamous cell carcinoma. It is also uncertain if they are truly benign or have the potential to be malignant.

Lipoma

Lipomas are usually found under the skin but can occur anywhere that fat cells are present. Not technically a skin tumor, these are the most common type of subcutaneous soft-tissue tumor.

Although they don’t usually cause any problems, if they become large or press on an underlying structure, they can cause pain and discomfort. If very large (over 5 cm), it is advised to seek advice from a clinician to rule out liposarcoma.

Dermatofibroma

Dermatofibromas are often found on the arms and legs as small hard lumps that vary in color from pink to brown. The can be a benign tumor caused by folliculitis, or a reaction to a minor injury or an insect bite. They also sometimes occur in patients who are immunocompromised or have an autoimmune disorder.

Dermatofibromas can be confused with melanomas, therefore confirmation of the diagnosis is recommended. Surgical excision or cryosurgery is often used for removal, but removal is not necessary unless the dermatofibroma is causing symptoms.

Acrochordon

Acrochordon (skin tags) are small, soft, skin-colored growths. Approximately half of all people have at least one skin tag, and they are more common in older people and people with obesity. Removal is not necessary unless they are causing irritation or are cosmetically an issue.

Pyogenic Granuloma

Pyogenic granulomas are vascular lesions that usually appear within the first five years of life—but can occur at any age. They are generally less than 1 cm in size, but tend to bleed.

Pyogenic granuloma often develops rapidly, and in most cases there is no apparent cause. An excision biopsy is usually recommended for removal.

Sebaceous Cyst

Sebaceous cysts are round cysts filled with keratin and can also be known as epidermoid, inclusion, or keratinoid cysts. They are firm, skin-colored nodules that are often found on the upper body or face.

They range in size and have the potential to rupture, which can lead to an inflammatory response and potentially an infection. They do not usually require treatment unless the cyst ruptures.

Less common benign skin tumors also include trichoepithelioma, naevus sebaceous of Jadassohn, trichilemmoma, pilomatrixoma, and pseudoepitheliomatous hyperplasia.

Cancerous Skin Tumors

The three most common forms of skin tumors to look out for that are cancerous and require immediate treatment are:

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer. It starts in the basal cell layer of the epidermis. Over 2 million Americans are diagnosed annually with BCC.

BCC is most often found in body areas exposed to the sun, like the scalp, head, face, and neck. However, it can occur anywhere on the body and can present in many forms, including: a shiny nodule; an open sore that doesn’t heal: rough, scaly, red patches: or waxy scar-like marks.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) affects more than 1 million Americans each year, making it the second most common form of skin cancer. It begins in the flat cells of the outer skin layers and can be aggressive if left untreated.

SCC signs to look out for include: wart-like growths; irregular, persistent, scaly patches; open sores that don’t heal; and raised growths that may bleed on occasion.

Melanoma

Melanoma is the rarer of these three types of skin cancer, but is also the most deadly. If left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body.

The most common warning sign of melanoma is a spot or mole on the skin that has changed in size, color, or shape. It’s important to regularly check your skin and moles, using the ABCDE technique and the ugly duckling sign when checking.

With all skin cancer types, the earlier they are found, the easier they are to treat. Therefore, if you are concerned about a change in your skin, always consult a medical professional as soon as possible. 

Causes

The reason why most types of skin tumors occur is not known. However, in some circumstances they can be caused by sun exposure, minor trauma, or an underlying condition (like an autoimmune disorder). 

Diagnosis

Diagnosis begins with your family healthcare provider. They will ask you questions about how long it has taken the skin tumor to grow and other relevant medical histories. The skin tumor will be examined closely, perhaps under light or magnification. 

If your healthcare provider is uncertain about the skin tumor diagnosis, they will likely refer you to a skin specialist and for a biopsy. A biopsy is where a small sample (in some cases, the whole skin tumor if small) will be taken and analyzed more closely to look for cancer cells. 

If a skin tumor is suggestive of skin cancer or a biopsy has confirmed skin cancer, your healthcare provider will refer you to a specialist skin cancer team.

Treatments

Most tumors are benign and only require treatment if they are causing discomfort or pose cosmetic concerns. Treatment options will vary depending on the type of skin tumor but can include:

  • Laser treatment: A laser is a single wavelength of light focused into a high-intensity, narrow light beam. They are very powerful and can cut through human tissue without using a scalpel. Lasers are very useful for precise surgical work.
  • Curettage and electrodesiccation: A sharp tool called a curette is used to scrape the tumor. A needle-like device then uses an electric current to burn the surrounding tissues, stopping the bleeding and destroying any cancerous cells around the edge of the wound.
  • Surgical excision: A simple excision involves cutting out the tumor and some of the normal tissue around it from the skin.
  • Shave excision: A small blade is used to shave off the abnormal area of the skin.
  • Cryotherapy: Liquid nitrogen or liquid carbon dioxide is sprayed onto the abnormal tissue to freeze and destroy it.
  • Topical medication: Topical creams containing immunotherapy drugs or chemotherapy drugs allow high levels of the drug to penetrate a specific area of the skin without having a systemic impact on the rest of the body. They are usually only recommended for precancerous growths or early skin cancers that haven’t spread.
  • Oral medication: Targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy can all be used to treat skin cancer in the form of oral medication.
  • Mohs surgery: In Mohs surgery, a tumor is removed from the skin in a succession of very thin layers. As each layer is removed, it is checked for cancerous cells under a microscope. Layers are removed until no more cancer cells are seen. This type of surgery removes as little normal tissue as possible, making it useful to treat areas like the face.
  • Radiotherapy (radiation therapy): Radiation is used to target the area of the body where cancer is present. I can either kill the cancer cells or prevent them from growing.

A Word From Verywell

Most skin tumors are entirely benign and harmless. Still, it is essential to differentiate between a malignant and a benign tumor, therefore in some cases a biopsy may be required.

On the whole, most benign skin tumors do not require any treatment and will not affect your life. However, a healthcare provider can remove a skin tumor if of cosmetic concern or causing discomfort.

Was this page helpful?
10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Skin Cancer Foundation. Actinic keratosis.

  2. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Skin tags.

  3. Khandpur S, Ramam M. Skin tumours. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2012;5(3):159-162. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.101368

  4. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for basal and squamous cell skin cancers. Updated January 12, 2021.

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin cancer types: basal cell carcinoma signs and symptoms.

  6. The Skin Cancer Foundation. Squamous cell carcinoma warning signs. Updated January 2021. 

  7. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of melanoma skin cancer. Updated August 2019.

  8. National Cancer Institute. Lasers in cancer treatment. Updated September 2011.

  9. National Cancer Institute. Skin cancer treatment (PDQ®)–patient version. Updated December 2020.

  10. Cullen J, Simmons J, Parsons P, Boyle G. Topical treatments for skin cancerAdv Drug Deliv Rev. 2020;153:54-64. doi:10.1016/j.addr.2019.11.002

Additional Reading