I have always been worried about moles. I read that they can turn cancerous if they change in size, and I believe I have a lot of them on my face. I went to a skin specialist, and he told me that instead of moles, what I have is skin tags. What are skin tags?

A skin tag is a small, out-pouching protrusion of skin that is connected to your skin by a thin stalk.

Naturally, you can’t see this skin stalk with the naked eye.

It is very difficult to see, and many people have difficulty telling different kinds of skin lesions apart.

But if you hold a magnifying glass to it, you can see that skin tags look like tiny “hanging” bits of skin.

They are usually in places of the skin that are in contact with clothes, or where there is skin-to-skin rubbing – such as your underarms, neck, upper chest (mostly beneath the breasts for women with big breasts), or groin, where it meets your thighs.

However, they can also appear on your face.

This is especially apparent around your eyelids because these are also folds of skin.

Wait, are they some kind of wart?

In the medical world, they are called “acrochordon”. Sometimes, people refer to them as soft warts, although they are not true warts such as the ones caused by a virus.

Some people also call them soft fibromas (which means that they are some sort of benign fibrous tumour), fibroepithelial polyps, fibroma pendulans and pedunculated fibroma.

The last two terms simply describe the way skin tags are held to the skin by the tiny stalk.

Skin tags become more frequent with age. They are so common that they can be seen in 25% of all adults.

They also run in families, though they are rarely seen in children.

Skin tags tend to be more apparent if you are overweight because there is more friction between the skin, and your folds of flesh tend to be heavier and sagging.

Skin tags also become more common during pregnancy, especially the second trimester.

They do not get worse if you go outside in the sun.

They are tumours? Now I am scared. Will they turn into skin cancer?

No, you have no reason to be afraid. Unlike some moles, they will never turn cancerous.

A tumour is simply a term for an abnormal growth of cells that serve no purpose in the body.

It does not mean that it is cancerous or malignant.

Unfortunately, the word “tumour” has been taken out of context by many people.

I had piles once. The doctor noticed some ‘skin tags’ around my anus, and removed them as well. Are those anal tags also skin tags as we are describing them today?

Yes. Not everything that protrudes from the anus is “piles” or haemorrhoids.

A lot of people get worried that way. If you are not sure, just go to a surgeon, and he will be able to tell you if you have piles or skin tags.

Either way, they can both be removed.

How large can a skin tag be? Can they grow very large and become problematic? Can they become painful and infected?

Skin tags look flesh coloured or light brown if you have fair skin. They are sometimes smooth, and sometimes wrinkled.

They can be very tiny, around 1 mm in diameter, or as large as the size of a grape.

At that large size, you can definitely see the stalk that binds them to your underlying skin.

Most of the time, small skin tags merely appear as bumps on your skin.

Skin tags are not usually painful. But if they are large and have long stalks, sometimes these stalks can get twisted, and they can bleed.

Large skin tags can also get caught on your clothing and bleed.

If there is bleeding and you keep scratching them, then there is a minor chance of a skin infection.

But otherwise, they don’t usually get infected.

I don’t want skin tags! Can I remove them?

Yes. Since they are not dangerous, the usual reason for removing them is because they are unsightly.

A dermatologist can carry out surgery – either by cutting off large skin tags at the stalk with a blade or scissors, or freezing them with liquid nitrogen, or using electrocautery.

Sometimes, you don’t even need an anaesthetic.

But most of the time, the doctor gives you a local anaesthetic that is injected into your skin. Otherwise, he can also give you an anaesthetic cream to numb the area.

Can my beautician do this during a facial the way she removes blackheads?

Sometimes, you can even do it yourself at home by tying off the skin tag stalk with thread and squeezing the thread tightly to choke it. Then, after several days, the skin tag falls off.

However, if you do it yourself, or at the beautician’s, you face the risk of skin infection. So the recommended therapy is still to be done at the doctor’s.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.