Medically reviewed by Ross Radusky
I have them. You might have them, too. In fact, according to a study published in the journal Dermotologica — the only one that provides hard numbers on the subject — 46 percent of 750 randomly selected people studied had them. But I was in my early twenties, and I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that over the course of several months, a few tiny bumps had appeared — on my genitals, mostly in the fold between my thigh and pubic area. From what I could tell, they were skin-colored. They were not moles. Clearly, I had a sexually transmitted disease (STD). I thought they were warts. I Googled, and then I dearly wished I hadn’t.
I went through the stages of grief. First, I lived in denial. Then I got angry. How could this have happened to me? I tried bargaining. "I will never sleep with anyone ever again if I just wake up and these things are gone." Then I slid into depression. I actually would never sleep with anyone again because who would want to sleep with someone, I thought, who had an STD? Never mind that even chronic STDs are manageable and treatable, and shouldn’t be stigmatized. I was raised to think these things didn’t happen to nice girls.
I finally worked my way toward acceptance and made an appointment with my ob-gyn. I cried and cried as I put on my paper gown. I knew I was about to be told something horrible.
The doctor came in. She held a clipboard, and she was kind. “Why are you crying, sweetie?” she asked.
“I think I have an STD,” I choked out. “Those bumps.”
“Well, let’s take a look,” she said.
Her bedside manner slipped, and when she looked at my genitals, she laughed. You don’t really want someone laughing when they look at your genitals. “What?” I said, outrage seeping through my terror.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “You have skin tags. They’re perfectly normal and nothing to be worried about.”
"Skin tags." It was the first time I’d heard of them.
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Skin Tags: What Are They, and Should You Be Worried if You Have Them?
According to Live Science, a skin tag is basically just a skin growth that can be smooth or irregular. It may attach to the skin by a stalk. But Katy Burris, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University and board-certified dermatologist practicing at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, puts it simply: “A skin tag is a soft growth of normal skin that appears like a small tag. They tend to appear in areas of high friction, where skin may rub clothing or other skin.”
This was exactly what I was experiencing: tiny skin growths that were appearing in an area where, um, skin rubbed against other skin and against clothing. They were flesh colored. They looked like the skin around them, just like little abnormal pouches or tags coming off it.
And I was getting them exactly where I was expected to. Michele Farber, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City, says they can happen anywhere, but “they are normally on the neck, underarms, [and] underneath the breasts and the groin folds.” Cynthia Abbott, MD, who works with Dermatology Affiliates in Marietta, Georgia, says that while “skin tags are an outgrowth of skin most commonly occurring due to constant rubbing and irritation,” that they “can form anywhere, but the waistline, underarms, groin, neck, and other areas of friction with necklaces and clothes are the most common locations.”
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My Skin Tags May Have Signaled That Diabetes Was Brewing
I went on my way after my doctor’s appointment, relieved. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. Many doctors I've spoken to say people with obesity are more likely to get skin tags due to the increase in skin friction. I probably weighed 120 pounds (lbs) booted out in snow gear. But there are other risk factors for skin tags — factors that, if you’re suffering from them, may be worth investigating.
Susan Bard, MD, of Manhattan Dermatology Specialists in New York City, says type 2 diabetes and prediabetes can lead to a thickening of the skin, called “acanthosis nigricans,” which can “lead to skin tag formation.”
Someone should have told me all this and urged me to get my blood sugar checked immediately. A standard physical a few years later (I wasn’t doing them regularly like I should have been; I was young and stupid) in fact revealed that my fasting blood sugar levels were high. The skin tags could have been a clue. A study published in March 2017 in the journal found that nearly 42 percent of patients with skin tags fulfilled the criteria for metabolic disease. About 37 percent of the participants had abnormally high glucose tolerance tests.
I eventually developed type 2 diabetes. If I had known earlier, from my skin tags, that I had impaired insulin tolerance, could I have staved it off a few years? I don’t know. But it would have been worth investigating.
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What Else You Should Know About Skin Tags
Some other studies have suggested that skin tags may be associated with thyroid problems. An article published in December 2016 in the Journal of Evolutionary Medicine found that about 11 percent of people with thyroid issues had achrocordons, or skin tags. These patients tended to have a higher number of thyroid nodules and thyroid volume. This, they hypothesize, is because “skin tags and thyroid changes may be associated with high levels of circulating insulin.”
I had all the symptoms of hypothyroidism at the time I noticed my skin tags; I was diagnosed several years later, after the birth of my first son. By that point, my thyroid was quite large and had several nodules. Luckily, none of them were cancerous.
And speaking of cancer, it’s generally not something you need to worry about with regular old skin tags. Dr. Farber says that, “If anything changes quickly, is unusually painful, or concerns you, it’s worth getting it examined to confirm it’s a benign skin tag …. Skin tags tend to grow very slowly. Any growth that changes quickly is a reason to get examined by a dermatologist.”
Susan Besser, MD, a family medicine specialist with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, says that if skin tags “get large, change color, or become infected or ulcerated, you need to see your doctor. In those cases, it may not be a simple skin tag and further evaluation is needed.” By and large, Todd Minars, MD, of MINARS Dermatology in Hollywood, Florida, states, “Skin tags are harmless. If they do not bother you, then there is no need to treat them.”
But that doesn’t mean you should completely ignore skin tags. David Lorschter, MD, founder of Curology and a board-certified dermatologist in San Diego, notes there are exceptions. He says people with a genetic disorder called basal cell nevus system (BCNS) usually exhibit spots of basal cell skin cancer that look like — you guessed it — skin tags. Therefore, people with BCNS should have their skin tags biopsied and screened for cancer on a regular basis.
Not to mention, your skin tags may not be skin tags at all. They could be genital warts, as their appearance is similar to skin tags, as shown from pictures on the American Academy of Dermatology website. Your best bet? Visit a certified dermatologist, like I did, to determine a diagnosis and find out the best treatment for your condition.
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Making Peace With My Skin Tags
My skin tags, of course — like the skin tags of millions of people — were fine. They didn’t irritate or bother me, though some doctors mentioned them getting twisted in necklace or irritated by rubbing on clothing. When that happens, or for cosmetic reasons, skin tags are easily removed. “There are several methods of removal — clip them with sharp scissors; freeze them with liquid nitrogen; or burn them off with heat,” meaning cauterize them, Dr. Besser says. (All of this should be performed by a medical professional, not at home.)
But not on my genitals, thank you. They’re not bothering me any.
Some doctors said skin tags wouldn’t grow. Some told me they would keep growing. Most of them said they would increase in frequency as a person ages, and sure enough, what did I find over my eyelid the other day — a tiny little skin tag, just where the lid rubs against my brow. For cosmetic reasons, I’d consider getting that one removed, though the thought of liquid nitrogen on that thin skin makes me shudder, as do the aesthetics of a giant Band-Aid on my face for days.
But skin tags are generally benign, so I’ll probably just live with it. The same way I live with the ones on my genitals — a story I can now look back on and laugh at. Skin tags. I thought I’d contracted some disease as yet unknown to science, but really, I had skin tags. No wonder that poor ob-gyn almost laughed me out of the stirrups. Because if there’s one things that’s true, it’s that about half of us have skin tags — whether you can see them or not.