Skin tags are sometimes described as benign tumors. This is an accurate description, but the mention of the word tumor can frighten some people with skin tags, since the counterpart to a benign tumor is a malignant tumor, which is a tumor that can spread to other organ system and cause organ failure. Some people may begin to wonder if it is possible to have a skin tag that is a malignant tumor. The short answer is that it is not possible to have a malignant tumor form from a skin tag. Skin tags are by definition benign tumors, which means that they lack the ability to undergo the kind of uncontrolled cellular reproduction that defines malignant tumors. Knowing how cancerous tumors work and the difference between benign and malignant tumors may help allay the fears of people with skin tags.
What is a Skin Tag?
Skin tags are, at their worst, a nuisance. They may be in a conspicuous area of the body that may make the person feel self-conscious about their skin tags, or they may be in an area where they are pulled, cut or torn by razors, jewelry or clothing. These cases are the only way that a skin tag can cause complications. Injuring a skin tag can leave it susceptible to infection, which can lead to complications such as certain life-threatening infections such as Staphylococcus infections.
Skin tags are small growths of fibrous connective tissue and vascular tissue (blood vessels) that are surrounded by skin. The skin surrounding the fibrovascular tissue at the core of the skin tag may vary in thickness. This fleshy part of the skin tag is attached to the body by a peduncle, which is a stalk of typical skin tissue like the skin tissue that surrounds the fleshy part of the skin tag. Skin tags may feel firm but yielding, or they may be pliable, like putty. Their color varies but is most often the same color as the surrounding skin. However, they may be a few shades darker than the surrounding skin or they may be noticeably brown or purplish in color. Although skin tags may grow quite large, some the size of a large grape or even larger, they are invariably harmless. Despite their alarming size, these skin tags are benign as well.
Skin tags form most often as a result of friction, and tend to cluster in areas where folds of skin rub together. Although the causes of skin tags are basically understood, it is not known why the skin responds to friction in this way. It is thought that the friction stimulates skin cells to reproduce, causing the skin to thicken. Continual exposure to friction may also change the composition of skin cells in the area where the friction concentrates, causing the fibrous connective tissue and blood vessels that form a skin tag to cluster together. Connective tissue and the vascular tissue that form the blood vessels in a skin tag are slow to reproduce, and typically only do so when the tissue is injured. Once the injury to such tissues is repaired, reproduction ceases.
What is a Malignant Tumor?
This is in contrast to malignant tumors. Malignant tumors are growths of cells that reproduce uncontrollably. Cancerous cells appear frequently in the body, but the immune system has mechanisms in place that can find and kill such cells before they are able to form tumors. However, occasionally a cancerous cell is able to reproduce quickly enough that it can form a tissue before the immune system is able to kill the cancerous cells. When there are enough cancerous cells to form a tissue, they are able to reproduce more quickly than the body can kill them.
Tumors often form on or near an organ. At this point, the tumor is often able to redirect blood flow from the organ to nourish itself, leaving the organ without the necessary resources it needs to continue functioning normally. As time goes on, the tumor may undergo metastasis, which is when a part of the tumor breaks off and enters the bloodstream, spreading to other organs. The organ failure that tumors may cause as a result of this is what makes cancer so debilitating and often deadly. When multiple organ system are affected by cancer, it can drastically affect a person’s chances of surviving the disease.
How are Skin Tags and Malignant Tumors Different?
Skin tags do not have any of the characteristics of precancerous tumors. Some people may confuse skin tags for precancerous moles. This kind of mole is a lesion that may develop into melanoma, a type of cancer that has a high mortality rate. However, since skin tags are composed of tissues that do not readily reproduce, they are not able to do any of the things that tumors can do that makes them so harmful.
Skin tags do not redirect a significant amount of blood flow to nourish themselves. The blood vessels that are present in skin tags are present from their formation, and the number of blood vessels and the amount of blood that they receive does not change. Skin tags also generally do not grow in size, meaning that they do not form more complex tissues the way tumors do. Finally, skin tags are not able to metastasize. They are contained outside the body; portions of the skin tag cannot break away from the main part of the skin tag and travel through the bloodstream to settle in other organs.
It is understandable that people may fear developing any kind of tumor. People often conflate skin tags with moles, and their understanding of the dangers moles pose may cause them to be concerned about their skin tags being potentially cancerous. There is no need to worry about skin tags becoming cancerous, however, and it is generally safe to have them removed or to perform skin tag removal at home. Removing skin tags can only benefit one’s appearance; there is not strictly a medical need to do so.