Your skin is an amazing thing-not only is it the largest organ of the body, but it also helps you regulate body temperature and keeps out harmful microbes and other elements, among other tasks. It’s also one major thing that makes all of us unique-and that includes different skin growths.
Skin tags and moles are two major growths can can pop up on the surface of your skin, and luckily, they’re usually benign (though sometimes annoying). And while the two types of spots have similarities, they’re also quite different.
Here’s what you need to know about the differences between skin tags and moles, including when they should be removed and how it’s typically done.
What are skin tags?
Skin tags are technically known as acrochordons, and they’re small, benign skin growths, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD). “Skin tags are harmless,” fleshy overgrowths that typically occur along the neck and the armpits,” Joshua Zeichner, MD, associate director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells Health. “They are called tags because they typically have a narrow base and stick out from the skin like a tag.”
It’s estimated that about half of all adults have at least one skin tag, but that they more often occur on overweight bodies or on people who are diabetic, per the AOCD. That’s because skin tags “often occur in areas of friction, like armpits, under the breast, and neck,” Mary L. Stevenson, MD, a dermatologic surgeon based in New York City, tells Health. So, with larger bodies, skin tags can grow between folds of skin. “However, skin tags are [also] determined by your genetics, and in some cases, people who are very slender still develop them,” Dr. Zeichner adds.
What are moles?
Moles, also called nevi, are common spots or bumps that grow on your skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA). “Most are flat and darkly colored, although others may be raised and pink or light in color. These are harmless overgrowths of skin cells,” says Dr. Zeichner. (Those cells are called melanocytes, melanin-producing cells in skin’s epidermis, which give skin its color.)
Moles can either be congenital, meaning you’re born with them, or acquired, meaning they show up throughout life. “People usually start developing moles around the age of 3 or 4, and it is considered normal to continue to get new moles until the age of 30,” says Dr. Zeichner.
You can also have common moles, which are smaller and more uniform, or atypical moles (known as dysplastic nevi) which means they’re larger than common moles and have some irregularities, like varied colors and irregular edges. Also important: Moles can be cancerous too, known as melanoma-it’s the most dangerous form of skin cancer and can (rarely) pop up in an existing mole or from a patch of previously clear skin.
Video: What Is a Cancerous Mole? Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments, Explained by Dermatologists (Health.com)
Moles, as with skin tags, can be the result of genetics, says Dr. Stevenson. “Many families have lots of moles or tend to make tags,” she says. But moles specifically can also be the result of sun exposure.
Are there any risks associated with skin tags or moles?
“Skin tags are totally benign,” Debra Jaliman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells Health. “They are flesh colored and small in size and do not cause any pain, but sometimes can be irritated by clothing [or jewelry].”
In some cases, because skin tags are closely associated with larger bodies, it’s also possible that many skin tags on one person could be a sign of diabetes or other medical conditions associated with higher weights, says Dr. Zeichner. If that’s a concern to you, it’s important to bring it up to your doctor.
Moles, too, are typically harmless for the most part, but new or changing moles can be a concern. If you’ve had a mole-either common or atypical-for a while and haven’t seen any changes in is appearance, it’s not a concern. But when moles begin to change color, size, shape, or show asymmetry of any kind, a doctor will need to give you the once-over. The same goes for if you see a brand-new mole pop up on your skin later in life. “I typically advise patients to have moles checked out in the office if currently existing ones are changing. Or if they get any new spots after age of 30, they should be evaluated,” says Dr. Zeichner.
A good rule of thumb when inspecting moles is to keep the “ABCDE method” in mind-that means checking for asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolutions or changes in the mole, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Any of those changes in a mole could mean the presence of skin cancer, and so the mole in question would need to be removed and examined.
How are skin tags and moles removed?
To be clear, skin tags don’t need to be removed unless they are causing discomfort to the patient, and moles only need removal if a dermatologist finds them concerning.
Skin tags specifically can be removed in one of three ways: snipping it off with small surgical scissors, burning it (electrocautery), or freezing it (cryosurgery), according to Dr. Jaliman and the AOCD. Unfortunately, because skin tag removal is considered cosmetic, “this procedure is not covered by insurance,” says Dr. Zeichner.
That doesn’t mean that you should take a DIY approach. “I do not recommend attempting to remove skin tags at home, because they tend to bleed significantly which is difficult to be treated at home,” he says. “Plus, it should be done under the right conditions to minimize the risk of an infection.”
Regarding new or changing moles, your dermatologist may first take a biopsy of it in the office. “This may either involve a surface scrape or a small cut in the skin followed by a stitch,” says Dr. Zeichner. That specimen will then get sent to a lab to get results, and if the cells come back as atypical, more of the mole (or the mole in its entirety) may be removed, says Dr. Zeichner.
Three options for mole removal include: punch biopsies, shave biopsies, and surgical excisions, Ata Moshiri, MD, a board certified dermatologist specializing in skin cancer treatment at University of Washington Medicine, previously told Health. In mole removals where skin cancer is detected, more than just the mole is removed. “A larger piece of skin is removed to ensure that a clear margin can be obtained so none of the atypical cells are left behind,” says Dr. Zeichner. “When skin cancers or atypical moles are detected early, they can be completely removed.”
Can you prevent skin tags or moles?
There’s really no surefire way to prevent against these growths or spots on your skin. Skin tags are often genetic, and tend to grow without a specific cause, but given their benign nature, you shouldn’t worry about prevention, as they won’t affect your health.
Moles are similar, because they “are determined by your genetics, so there’s no way to prevent them,” says Dr. Zeichner. “However, we recommend wearing sunscreen regularly because we know that UV light exposure can be harmful to the skin and is the biggest risk factor for the development of skin cancer such as melanoma. In some cases, the interaction between UV light and the pigment producing cells within the moles can lead to a cancerous change,” he says. In addition to sunscreen, you could consider protective clothing like hats and long-sleeve shirts when spending an excess of time in the sun.
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