Moles and skin tags are skin growths that appear for different reasons. While both are usually harmless, one carries a higher risk for cancer than the other.

Read on to find out what moles and skin tags have in common, how they differ, and which one is more likely to stay harmless.

four examples of normal molesShare on Pinterest
There are different types of normal moles, or nevi, that aren’t skin cancers. They can vary in appearance and feel. But if any mole comes up quickly, changes dramatically, or causes itching or pain, it’s best to see a healthcare provider to rule out skin cancer.

Moles, or nevi, are benign tumors that form when skin cells called melanocytes produce clusters of darker pigment, called melanin. Congenital moles are present at birth, whereas you can develop new moles later in life.

What are the symptoms of a mole

Common moles are usually benign and stay the same size, color, shape, and texture. These are:

  • round and symmetrical, with a well-defined border
  • less than 1/4 inch across
  • flat or raised
  • uniform in color, meaning the entire mole is either:
    • brown
    • black
    • tan
    • pink
    • red
    • blue
    • flesh-toned

Atypical moles, or dysplastic nevi, may also be flat or raised but tend to be:

  • shaped irregularly, with uneven borders that fade into the skin around your mole
  • larger than a 1/4 inch across (i.e., larger than a pencil eraser)
  • smooth, bumpy, rough, wrinkled, or scaly
  • more than one color or speckled (e.g., flesh-toned edges with a brown center)

How is a mole diagnosed?

Your doctor can usually diagnose moles with a skin exam. In fact, a 2018 systematic review and analysis found that 92.4 percent of positive melanoma cases were accurately diagnosed through visual exams. However, researchers also noted limitations in their study data and cautioned that visual exams alone are not necessarily enough to detect melanomas.

Another 2018 systematic review and analysis found that negative cases were more likely to be correct when visual exams were combined with dermoscopy.

Clinicians trained in this approach conduct a skin exam with the aid of a handheld device known as a dermatoscope. It magnifies and lights up the area of skin in question.

Your doctor may also perform a skin lesion biopsy if your moles have one or more of the ABCDEs of melanoma:

  • A: asymmetry in appearance when looking at both halves of the mole
  • B: borders are irregular and not well-defined but jagged or blurred
  • C: color has changed (e.g., darker than it was) or has unusual colors
  • D: diameter is larger than 1/4-inch wide
  • E: evolving, or causes new symptoms (e.g., itching, crusting, bleeding) or changes in shape or size

How is a mole treated?

Your dermatologist can remove the mole through surgical or shave excision if it bothers you, irritates your skin, or is cancerous.

Share on Pinterest
Anita van den Broek/Shutterstock
Skin tags may be bothersome because they can snag on clothes, for example, but they aren’t cancerous.

Skin tags are flesh-toned or brownish outgrowths that hang from the skin surface. Your doctor may refer to them as acrochordons or fibroepithelial polyps.

The papules consist of loose collagen fibers and ducts embedded within thicker areas of skin. They are also composed of nerve and fat cells as well as epidermis, which is the outermost skin layer.

What are the symptoms of a skin tag?

Skin tags commonly form on your neck, eyelids, or other places where friction occurs and skin folds exist — for example, on the breasts, groin, or armpits. They form skin flaps or grow on a short stem, called a peduncle, and resemble tiny mushrooms with narrow stalks and smooth or irregular caps.

Skin tags usually start out as soft pinhead bumps when they first appear but may grow larger. Their stem lengths vary, and lesions can range in size from 2 millimeters to 1 centimeter, with some growing up to 5 centimeters.

Most skin tags do not cause pain or other symptoms. But large lesions may irritate the skin and cause discomfort if they sit where skin rubs against itself.

Large skin tags can also cause pain if they burst or a blood clot forms when the stalk gets twisted.

How is a skin tag diagnosed?

A visual exam is often enough for a doctor to diagnose skin tags. Your dermatologist may perform a skin biopsy to check whether the skin tag is a cancerous lesion.

How is a skin tag treated?

You can opt to have skin tags removed for cosmetic reasons or if they irritate your skin.

Radiocautery is the most common approach used to remove skin tags. The procedure is usually performed at your doctor’s office and involves using radio waves to burn off the lesion.

Another common method is cryotherapy, which means freezing the skin tag off with liquid nitrogen.

Other methods involve:

  • electrocautery, using electric current to heat and remove a lesion
  • surgical or shave excision
  • ligation, which involves stopping blood flow to the tag by wrapping sutures around its stem
  • laser treatment with a Q-switched Neodymium YAG or carbon dioxide laser

Choosing a dermatologist

The following tips may help you choose a dermatologist that’s right for you:

  • Ask your primary care doctor for a referral based on your skin health needs.
  • Verify credentials and fellowship or subspecialty training.
  • Determine what type and how much experience they have treating conditions related to your gender, age, and type and color of skin.
  • Assess their communication style and bedside manner to be sure they align with your expectations.
  • Read online reviews posted by current and former clients to gain insight into your doctor’s practice style and office operations.
  • Know which and how many treatments are covered by your insurance or will incur out-of-pocket costs.
Was this helpful?

Skin tags form on the skin surface, whereas moles tend to be rooted deeper within the skin. Hair can grow inside moles but not skin tags.

What truly sets apart moles from skin tags is that some moles are precancerous and can turn into melanoma. Skin tags are almost always benign (noncanerous).

Moles and skin tags may not be prevented completely, but there are things you can do the lessen their size and impact on your health.

Preventing moles

You may not be able to fully prevent moles from forming. But you can practice sun safety habits that help lessen the chance of new moles growing.

Keep in mind that damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can also harm your skin cell DNA, per 2020 research. This can cause new moles to form or already existing ones to turn into melanoma.

Aim to:

  • Avoid midday sun exposure when UV rays are harshest.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 every 2 hours, or more often if it wears off when you sweat or go in the water.
  • Wear clothes that protect you from UV rays, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.
  • Stay away from tanning beds and lamps.
  • Examine your moles routinely and have your doctor assess any that cause concern.

Preventing skin tags

There may not be a way to prevent skin tags from forming, either, but your doctor can suggest tips for managing health conditions that raise your risk for them. Strategies include:

Certain risk factors may make some people more likely to get moles or skin tags.

Risk factors for moles

Mutations in NRAS and BRAF genes may raise the risk for congenital and atypical moles, 2020 research suggests.

Sun damage may also raise your risk for acquired and atypical moles.

Risk factors for skin tags

Skin tags may be more common in people who:

  • are older
  • have overweight or obesity
  • have diabetes
  • have human papillomavirus
  • have a sex-steroid imbalance
  • have close family members prone to skin tags

They have also been tied to:

Moles and skin tags are treatable, and most do not cause complications.

What if you have moles?

Most moles remain benign, even without treatment. However, moles still carry an inherent risk for melanoma. About 25 to 33 percent of benign moles become cancerous.

Moreover, having more acquired moles may raise the risk of death from melanoma, according to a 2019 prospective study, especially in people with a history of multiple sunburns. Mole removal does not lower your risk for melanoma.

What if you have skin tags?

Left in place, friction from clothing and skin rubbing together may cause skin tags to grow. But they can be successfully and permanently removed with a range of office or outpatient procedures.