Skin Tags vs. Warts: What is the Difference?
Skin tags and warts are entirely different conditions. However, if you have no prior experience with either, and have not had an official diagnosis from a doctor, you may be confused as to what is happening to your skin.
There is no need to worry since both skin tags and warts are benign conditions. This just means that they are harmless and non-cancerous skin lesions. However, both are cosmetic issues that many people choose to correct as soon as possible.
This guide will focus on the difference between skin tags and warts. We will also let you know why both skin conditions appear and share with you some proven methods for removing warts and skin tags at home. So, read on if you’d like to find out more.
Table of Contents:
- 1 How to Tell Skin Tags and Warts Apart
- 1.1 What Causes Skin Tags?
- 1.2 What Are the Reasons for Warts?
- 1.3 Where Do Warts Appear?
- 1.4 Where Do People Get Skin Tags?
- 1.5 Will Warts Go Away on Their Own?
- 1.6 Will Skin Tags Fall off without Treatment?
- 1.7 How to Get Rid of Skin Tags
- 1.8 How to Treat Warts at Home
- 1.9 Will Skin Tag or Cutaneous Wart Removal Leave a Scar?
- 1.10 When Should Treatment Be Avoided?
How to Tell Skin Tags and Warts Apart
Are skin tags similar to warts? Are skin tags related to warts? No, there are many differences between the two conditions.
You can distinguish between them based on the following factors:
- Skin tags and warts look different. Skin tags are smooth and soft, whereas warts are rough. They are often described as having a cauliflower-like appearance. Skin tags are also more raised from the skin by a thin stalk (they’re peduncular). By contrast, warts are either only slightly raised from the skin, or are entirely flat.
- They have completely different causes. Warts are caused by a virus. Skin tags are caused by everything from hormones to obesity, to friction.
- Warts are contagious, whereas skin tags are not. You can only catch warts. It is impossible for you to ‘catch’ skin tags.
- Skin tags are much more likely affect people as they get older, whereas the opposite applies to warts. Of course, anyone can be affected by either condition at any time. As the skin changes through age, problems like skin tags do become more common. Conversely, warts mostly affect younger people as they have not developed resistance to the HPV virus which causes them to appear.
- Warts will eventually go away on their own, whereas skin tags will not. An over-the-counter treatment or surgical intervention is required if you want skin tags to go away. OTC products can make warts disappear quicker, although they will eventually go away on their own anyway.
These points are the central differences between skin tags and warts. We have explored each of them in more depth below.
What Causes Skin Tags?
Acrochordons, as they are known medically, have a wide variety of causes. The precise mechanism which causes skin tags to appear is not clearly understood. But, at the very least, scientists have been able to identify factors which may be the reason for skin tags.
- Skin rubbing against skin, clothing or jewelry is known to cause skin tags. Friction causes skin cells to stretch and elongate. This is especially the case in older skin, which may lack elastin. At the very least, the fact that skin tags are mostly found around the neck, close to the eyes, underneath the armpits and so on indicates that they are only found in places where friction is common.
- Hormonal fluctuations can cause skin tags. Excess amounts of one hormone named leptin, for instance, seem to cause them to the formation. Even though its typical role is to regulate the digestive system, it seems to have side effects (which is common with hormones). Estrogen is another hormone which may cause skin tag formation.
- Pregnancy causes skin tags ‘by proxy,’ by altering the delicate hormone balance of the body. Pregnancy encourages production of the hormones progesterone, oxytocin, HGC and relaxin among others. Indeed, it is during pregnancy that many women develop acrochordons.
- Anabolic steroid injections are another cause of hormonal imbalances. Steroids mimic the action of the hormone cortisol. Excess cortisol, or anything which affects the body in the same way as cortisol, can cause skin tags.
- Weight gain and obesity cause an increase in androgen production, which also causes PCOS. Not only that, but weight gain causes increased friction between folds of skin. Tight clothing around the body can also lead to friction.
- Insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes are both inextricably linked to skin tag development. First, they each cause hormonal imbalances. However, studies have found that diabetes and insulin resistance causes them to form even aside from the issue of hormonal imbalances. A link between this skin condition and Type 1 Diabetes has yet to have been found.
- The aging process is another widespread cause of acrochordons. As you age, your skin becomes thinner and weaker. This makes the effects of friction on your skin more pronounced. This is why the older you get, the more likely you are to either have or to develop skin tags.
- Genetics also play a role of some kind. In rare cases, skin tags are present from birth. Those with specific genetic conditions such as acromegaly or Down syndrome are also more prone to developing skin tags.
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) may also play a role, although it is unclear how. A small number of studies have found that skin tag tissue occasionally contains HPV. Another study found that those known to have the HPV virus were slightly more likely to develop new skin tags.
What Are the Reasons for Warts?
Warts, by contrast, are an easy skin condition to understand. They have one very simple cause, which is a viral infection. Just before the time when you first noticed your warts, you will have been infected by one of the many viruses in the HPV family.
This group of viruses normally cause warts by infecting small cuts or scrapes on the skin. Once the virus has infected the cut, it will cause the skin cells to reproduce rapidly. These skin cells then cause the familiar rough spot on the skin, which we call a wart. Like any viral infection, you may have caught them in many different ways.
These are just a few examples:
- Coming into contact with somebody who has warts, such as through a handshake. If the person you are meeting has warts on their hands (which is relatively common), the virus may be passed on to you.
- Sexual contact facilitates the spread of genital warts. Genital warts are a specific member of the HPV family. Like the rest of the ‘family,’ they are spread through skin-to-skin contact.
- Using something after a person with warts has used it. An example might be using a keyboard, door handle or towel after somebody with warts. This is a typical vector for passing on other viruses such as the common cold.
- Having small open sores allowed the virus to take hold more easily. The virus will infect any open sore on your body, provided that it comes into contact with it. This is why shaving accidents or biting skin or fingernails can help the spread of warts.
- Quite simply, some people are more prone to getting warts than others. Scientists are still unsure why this might be the case. But the extensive scientific study has shown it to be true.
After you have caught the virus, it can take weeks, months, or even years for warts to develop. This can make identifying how you caught them a difficult task. However, steering clear of the situations described above can help you avoid catching them again.
Where Do Warts Appear?
Warts can appear in several different places. There are more than sixty different strains of the HPV virus. Some are more prone to affect specific areas of the body. This is why warts are such a common condition and can appear in such a wide variety of locations.
- ‘Flat’ warts are smaller and flatter than other kinds. They most commonly appear on the face, and occasionally on the legs.
- Warts on the hands and fingers are some of the most common. These warts, also known as Palmer warts, are the most easily spread since they are caught through physical contact like shaking hands.
- Genital warts appear around the groin and anus. These warts are caused by two strains of the HPV virus: types 6 and 11. They may either look like small heads of cauliflower or may be very small and hard to see at all.
- Plantar warts are located on the soles of the feet. They are caused by separate strains of the virus to those that cause genital warts. They can appear in clusters, which are also known as ‘mosaic warts.’
Aside from these four areas of the body, warts can technically infect any part of the skin. Cracks, cuts, and scrapes can affect the skin from head to toe. And if the virus comes into contact with any of these cracks, cuts, and scrapes, it will quickly infect them.
Warts can also spread from one part of your own body to another. If you are not careful about keeping your skin clean and any cuts sterilized, you can easily facilitate the spread of the virus yourself. This is especially the case for people with warts on the hands and fingers.
Where Do People Get Skin Tags?
Skin tags appear in many locations around the body. And there is generally one ‘rule’ of where you might find them: they tend to be found anywhere where there might be friction between two skin folds, or between the skin and jewelry or clothing. This means that they are located in the following areas:
- Around the eyes and eyelids, where blinking causes the skin to rub together
- Around the neck and upper shoulders, where collars and ties rub the skin
- Underneath the armpits, where the skin is especially irritated by body hair
- Underneath the breasts
- Around the groin, where multiple folds of skin can rub together. They also grow where tight clothing can cause friction.
- Occasionally under the fold of the buttocks, but more commonly near the entrance of the anus.
This is why scientists are fairly sure that friction is the main cause of this skin condition. By contrast, skin tags are rarely found in locations like the hand or foot. This is an obvious contrast to warts, which can be found in a wider variety of locations.
Of course, skin tags can still be found in places other than these. But this should not be a cause for concern. All skin tags are harmless, no matter where they are found. If you do find a skin tag in a place not listed here, that is simply less common rather than something to worry about.
Will Warts Go Away on Their Own?
Most warts disappear on their own over time. There is a general rule of thumb as to whether a wart is likely to go away without treatment.
It goes as follows:
- Around one in three warts will disappear without treatment within ten weeks.
- Around two in three warts will disappear without treatment within two years.
- If you still have a wart after two years, it is unlikely to ever go away without treatment.
This means that around two in three warts disappear on their own, and one in three do not. The problem, though, is that as some warts disappear, others can spring up as the infection spreads. And just because you don’t have warts at a certain point in time, this doesn’t mean that you don’t still have the infection and could develop more warts in the future.
This is the result of your body’s natural immune response to warts. Since warts are caused by a viral infection, the body responds as it would to any other kind of infection. It begins to try and fight it off and is in many cases successful. This is why many new warts are ‘defeated’ in just ten weeks.’
However, over the years, the immune system may stop trying to fight the virus. Any new infections will be fought off as normal. But as the body begins to understand that the virus in a particular area cannot be completely gotten rid of, it will simply try and contain the problem. At this point, warts will be unlikely to go away on their own.
Will Skin Tags Fall off without Treatment?
Some other skin conditions can resolve themselves without human intervention. Warts will disappear over time, although you will most likely still have the HPV virus. Conditions like eczema can come and go with the seasons and changing conditions.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of skin tags. This condition is not caused by a virus or by wet or sunny conditions. Once you develop a skin tag, you will have it for life. The only way to get rid of one is either with an OTC product or through a visit to the doctor.
The only way in which a skin tag will fall off is if the tissue becomes twisted. Technically, this would be called a ‘thrombosed skin tag.’ The twisting of the tissue has led to a cutting off of the blood supply. The tissue will die, and the skin tag will fall off a couple of weeks later.
Usually, there is some ‘warning’ before this happens. The tissue will turn black. And instead of the typical smooth texture of a skin tag, it will turn more solid. After a short period, it will drop off. This usually takes around a week.
How to Get Rid of Skin Tags
As was established in the prior section, skin tags will almost never drop off of their own accord, unless they’re caused by pregnancy hormones.
This is why skin tag removal is so popular. Here are some ways to get rid of skin tags:
- Ligation sounds like a complex medical procedure. But it’s quite simple. A product which can be used at home will place a small band around the skin tag. This band wraps very tightly (although not painfully so) around the skin tag. This prevents blood from reaching the tissue, which over time will cause it to die. Removal of the band is not necessary since the skin tag will fall off on its own.
- Freezing, or cryotherapy, is a different means of achieving the same end as ligation. Through using a kit that you can use at home, you can freeze the tissue of your skin tags. These kits often contain ingredients like liquid nitrogen, which are exceptionally cold to the touch. Like ligation, this method kills the tissue by starving it of blood, causing the skin tag to fall off.
- Topical skin creams are another option for tackling this skin condition. These topical ointments and creams do not work in the same way as those for other conditions. They do not tackle viral infections or encourage the body’s immune system to correct the issue. Instead, they dry out the skin tag, which again prevents it from re-oxygenating.
- Finally, if OTC methods do not work for you, you may choose to visit a doctor. This is a certain way to get rid of your skin tags. Doctors have access to a wide range of equipment, from laser surgery devices to simple surgical scissors. The only problem with visiting a doctor is the cost involved, and it’s unlikely to be covered by your health insurance policy because it’s a cosmetic issue.
How to Treat Warts at Home
Warts can be treated either by a doctor or by yourself at home. This is an excellent option for anybody on a budget, or who perhaps is embarrassed about their condition.
There are also a number of options available to choose from, which are discussed below:
- Freezing is a common method of wart removal and is just as effective as it is on skin tags. Again, liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the wart, which kills the tissue and viral infection. The wart forms a blister and will fall off in around a week’s time.
- Over the counter, topical creams can be applied to the wart directly. Salicylic acid and squaric acid can also be used. Methods such as these attack the viral infection itself rather than destroying the tissue of the wart itself.
- Cutting off warts is a drastic and unnecessary option. First, this method is the most painful. Second, it is the most dangerous, since you leave yourself at risk of an even worse infection. Third, since you are doing nothing to counter the virus which causes warts, they are likely to grow back anyway.
- There are dozens of ‘natural’ remedies for curing warts. Bear in mind that no studies have shown the efficacy of methods such as these. But, if you are completely opposed to doctor-recommended methods, there are many more ‘natural’ ones for you to try.
Wart treatments at home are hit-and-miss. They have a patchy success rate, so you may have to try and try again to get rid of your warts. If your method does not succeed at first, this does not mean that it will never succeed.
Alternatively, if you simply cannot get one of these methods to work for you, you can visit a doctor. Laser surgery and electrodesiccation, as well as prescription ointments and injections, are stronger and more effective than what is available over the counter.
Will Skin Tag or Cutaneous Wart Removal Leave a Scar?
The only problem with removing the results of these skin conditions is that they may leave a scar if you are not careful.
Here are some methods that do and don’t result in scarring:
- Cryotherapy is a method which does not leave scars if done right. Once the treatment is performed, you will be left with a scab on your skin. Leaving this scab in place, perhaps keeping it covered with a bandage is a good idea.
- The method of ligation in and of itself does not usually cause scars. Most treatments leave only a slight discoloration of the skin underneath where the skin tag or wart was. However, again, it is essential to let the scab fall off naturally after treatment.
- Creams and ointments are the least likely method of treatment to leave a scar. These methods gradually wear away the skin tag or wart, without breaking the skin or causing a wound.
- Cutting off the skin tag or wart with a pair of scissors is the most likely method to leave a scar. This is for two reasons. First, because improper sterilization can lead to infection and a longer healing period. Second, because unless you use exceptionally sharp surgical-grade scissors, the wound may not be clean cut. Both of these factors lead to an increased chance of scarring.
The best way to ensure that you avoid scarring is to take proper care of your skin afterward. As already mentioned above, avoid knocking or pulling the scab from the skin before it falls on its own.
This allows the skin underneath the skin tag or wart to heal fully before being exposed. Expose it too early, and the wound could become infected, scratched, or your healing otherwise compromised. There are ways to reduce the visibility of scars.
When Should Treatment Be Avoided?
Occasionally, treating your condition using one of the methods described above may not be suitable. This could be for one of a number of reasons. If you have doubts about treating the condition at home, consult with your doctor first.
- The first such scenario is when even your doctor is unsure of your condition. If your doctor has performed a biopsy and even they cannot tell you which skin condition you have, you should not pursue treatment. You would potentially be wasting money on ineffective treatment.
- This point applies more specifically to skin tags. Anyone with a history of cancer in their family should speak to their doctor about their skin condition. The vast majority of skin tags are entirely benign growths. If your family has a history of cancer, you should make sure that your condition is non-cancerous too.
- You should also avoid treatment if the condition is in an area which is particularly difficult to access or treat. Warts often grow in sensitive areas. Skin tags can also grow around the groin and buttocks. You should consider whether having skin tags removed is worth potentially painful treatment in a sensitive area. Your doctor may also recommend not going ahead with home treatment for conditions really close to the eyes.
- If you are for some reason particularly prone to infections, treatment may be more difficult. It is vital in treating any skin condition that the wound is not infected, or re-infected, as this can lead to scarring.
By now, you should know that skin tags and cutaneous warts (non-genital warts) are two completely different conditions. Only very rarely are skin tags mistaken for warts. They have many causes, different appearances, and grow in a variety of locations.