Benign Skin Growths
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What are benign skin growths?
Benign skin growths are overgrowths of skin cells that can appear on any part of your skin. They come in a range of appearances, including moles, flesh-colored skin tags, small red dots, and black bumpy patches.
Benign skin growths are a natural part of your body’s skin cell cycle. Your skin is made up of cells, which are constantly wearing out and being replaced. Benign growths form when there is too much cell growth during this process.
Just as there are many types of cells in the skin, there are many types of benign skin growths. Some of the most common types are seborrheic keratosis, nevus, angioma, cyst, skin tag, and lipoma.
You may get more benign spots or growths over time. This is part of the aging process. But any spot you are concerned about, should be checked by a dermatologist. —Dr. Lauren Levy
Benign vs malignant skin growths
Benign skin growths are, by definition, not dangerous. They won’t invade neighboring tissues or spread to other parts of the body.
“Malignant” growths—cancers—may invade neighboring tissues or spread to distant parts of the body, causing greater harm.
It can be very difficult for the average person to tell the difference between benign and malignant skin growths. That’s why it’s so important to show any skin growths to your doctor.
Some general traits of benign and malignant growths are:
Benign skin growth symptoms
- Regular borders
- One color
- Present for a long time
- Unchanged for a long time
- No bleeding or open sores
- No pain
Malignant skin growth symptoms
- Rapid growth
- New growth
- Irregular borders
- Irregular or multiple colors
- Bleeding or open sores
How skin growths are diagnosed
Dermatologists usually use one of three procedures to make a diagnosis and determine if a skin growth is benign or malignant:
- Physical exam: Doctors can diagnose many skin growths by looking at them closely under good lighting and checking its texture, hardness, and mobility.
- Dermoscopy: A dermatologist may also use a special tool called a dermatoscope to take a closer look at the skin growth. A dermatoscope is a hand-held microscope that uses polarized light to see below the surface of the skin.
- Biopsy: This is when your doctor takes a small sample of the growth and has it examined in a lab to make a diagnosis. Your doctor will likely use local anesthesia (the skin will feel numb but you’ll be awake) before shaving off or cutting out a small piece of skin. Depending on the size and depth of the biopsy, you may need one or two stitches.
Types of common skin growths
Your skin has many components, including a barrier, hair follicles, various glands, blood vessels, and fat. Each of these parts have distinct cells that can grow into benign skin growths. Here are some of the most common types of benign skin growths.
Very common, especially in those over 40. Younger patients can get them to. One study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology found that about 24% of people aged 15 to 30 had at least one of these growths.
This is an overgrowth of the sebaceous glands, which produce oil in the skin. They can occur anywhere and look like bumpy brown or black growths that appear to be “stuck” on your skin.
They are not harmful but can be removed if they bother you or you don’t like how they look.
Moles are an overgrowth of the melanocytes, cells that produce pigment in the skin. Moles can be pink, brown, blue, or black; flat or raised; and any shape.
It is hard to distinguish a harmless mole from skin cancer. Beware of new moles, moles that are growing or changing, or moles that do not look like your other ones.
When it comes to moles, remember the ABCDEs. Look for asymmetry, irregular borders, color change or more than two colors, diameter greater than a pencil eraser, and evolution (changing). A mole can slowly become a melanoma, so if anything is different to you, please come in and have it checked. —Dr. Levy
Common at all ages, increasing in number with age. They occur in 75% of people over age 75.
An angioma is an overgrowth of the blood vessels that supply the skin. They look like shiny red dots and may have visible blood vessels around them. They do not require any treatment and can be left alone. If you want treatment for cosmetic reasons, your doctor can burn them off.
Common in adults and adolescents.
Cysts feel like firm balls under the surface of your skin. Sometimes you’ll see an opening on top of the cyst that may be filled with pus or keratin (a white cheese-like material).
Don’t try to “pop” a cyst yourself, since it can become inflamed or infected. If a cyst is not bothersome, then leave it alone as it is not dangerous. You can choose to have the cyst removed by your doctor if it becomes unsightly or painful.
Very common in adults. From 50% to 60% of people over 50 have at least one skin tag.
Skin tags occur most often in areas where there’s a lot of friction, like your neck, armpits, and groin. They are thin, flesh-colored growths that are not serious but can be bothersome and become irritated from friction with your skin or clothes.
You can leave skin tags alone or your doctor can remove them with liquid nitrogen (freezing them), a snip excision, or electrocautery (burning them).
Very common. Affects about 1% of the population.
Lipomas are overgrowths of the fat cells in or just beneath the skin. They may be large and feel like soft bumps deep in the skin. These are not dangerous, but you should have them checked by your doctor to confirm the growth is a lipoma and not a cancer. They do not require any treatment, but if they grow large or become painful, your doctor can remove them.
When to see a doctor
If you are concerned about a skin growth, see your doctor. This is especially true for skin growths that are new, changing, irregular in border or color, bleeding, have opened, or are painful. Also see a doctor if it is bothering you and you want to discuss having it removed.
How to remove skin growths
If you want a skin growth removed, a doctor (typically a dermatologist) should do the procedure. This minimizes the chance of complications like infections or scarring and allows the doctor to check it for cancer.
Dermatologist & specialist care
Dermatologists use many tools to remove skin growths, depending on the type, its location, and whether or not it needs to be sent to a laboratory to rule out skin cancer. These procedures are almost always done in your doctor’s office while you’re awake. Some of the most common methods of skin growth removal are:
- Shave: A skin growth that is raised can be shaved off so that it’s even with or just below the level of the surrounding skin. The wound will heal on its own without stitches.
- Punch: A circular blade is used to “punch” around the skin growth, kind of like a cookie cutter. The growth is then lifted up and cut out. Usually it’ll require one or two stitches to close it, but it could be more.
- Snip: A skin growth that is long and thin, like a skin tag, can be snipped off with surgical scissors.
- Excision: Excision is a minor surgical procedure where the growth and some of the surrounding skin are cut out with a scalpel. This is for growths that are larger, deeper, or possibly malignant. The wound is usually closed with one or two layers of stitches.
- Cryotherapy: Some benign skin growths can be frozen off with liquid nitrogen spray over multiple visits.
- Electrosurgery/electrocautery: Certain growths can be removed with heat and electricity. For this procedure, your doctor will apply an electric current using a special pen-shaped cautery tool.
There are no scientifically proven methods to remove skin growth at home. Some touted methods include apple cider vinegar or tea tree oil. There are also some devices (pens that provide cooling) that are marketed for removing growths at home.
Do not believe any online or infomercial gimmicks about removing lesions at home. See a doctor to understand what the lesion is and to discuss removal options. —Dr. Levy
This is not recommended and could be quite dangerous for several reasons.
- Since the growth was not checked by a doctor, you may be removing a cancer (a malignant growth). This means that the cancer was not treated properly and could grow or spread to other parts of the body, which can even lead to death.
- Apple cider vinegar can cause severe burns that result in scarring or even open sores (ulcers).
- If you try to remove a growth at home and then develop an infection or ulcer, your doctor may not be able to figure out the cause of the growth and if it is benign or cancer.
William C. Fix is a resident physician specializing in dermatology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in New York. He graduated from Brown University with a BA in Economics in 2012 and obtained his MD from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in 2019. William has received grants from the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, The National Institutes of Health and the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for oncology research, and was selected for the University of Pennsylvania’s Dermatology Oncology Center (PennDOC) Research Fellowship in Dermatology & Dermatologic Surgery. William’s interests include general and procedural dermatology, cutaneous oncology, technology, and quality improvement.