Your skin is an amazing thing – not only is it the largest organ in the body, but it also helps you regulate body temperature and keeps harmful microbes and other elements out among other tasks. It’s also an important thing that makes us all unique – and that includes different skin growths.
Skin marks and birthmarks are two major growths that can appear on the surface of your skin, and fortunately, they are usually benign (though sometimes annoying). And while the two types of stains have similarities, they are also completely different.
Here’s what you need to know about the differences between skin marks and birthmarks, including when to remove them and how to do it typically.
What are skin marks?
Skin marks are technically known as acrocordons, and they are small, benign skin growths, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD). “Skin marks are harmless,” fleshy growths that typically occur along the neck and armpits, “says Joshua Zeichner, MD, associate director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Health. “They are called tags because they typically have a narrow base and protrude from the skin like a tag.”
It is estimated that approx. half of all adults have at least one skin mark, but that they occur more often on obese bodies or on people who are diabetic, according to the AOCD. This is because skin marks “often occur in areas of friction, such as armpits, under the chest and neck,” says Mary L. Stevenson, MD, a dermatological surgeon based in New York City. Health. So with larger bodies, skin marks can grow between skin folds. “However, skin marks are [also] determined by your genetics, and in some cases, people who are very slim are still developing them, “adds Dr. Zeichner.
What are birthmarks?
Moles, also called nevi, are common spots or bumps that grow on your skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA). “Most are flat and dark in color, although others may be swollen and pink or light in color. These are harmless growths of skin cells,” says Dr. Zeichner. (These cells are called melanocytes, melanin-producing cells in the epidermis of the skin that give the skin its color.)
Moles can either be congenital, which means you were born with them or acquired, which means they appear throughout life. “People usually start developing birthmarks around the age of 3 or 4, and it is considered normal to continue getting new birthmarks until the age of 30,” says Dr. Zeichner.
You may also have regular birthmarks that are smaller and more uniform, or atypical birthmarks (known as dysplastic nevi), which means they are larger than regular birthmarks and have some irregularities, such as different colors and irregular edges. Also important: Moles can also be carcinogenic, known as melanoma – it is the most dangerous form of skin cancer and can (rarely) appear in an existing mole or from a patch with previously clear skin.
Video: What is a cancerous mole? Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments Explained by Dermatologists (Health.com)
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Moles, as with skin marks, can be a result of genetics, says Dr. Stevenson. “Many families have lots of birthmarks or tend to make tags,” she says. But birthmarks specifically can also be the result of sun exposure.
RELATED: What is a Cancer Mole? Symptoms, causes and treatments, explained by dermatologists
Are there any risks associated with skin marks or birthmarks?
“Skin marks are completely benign,” says Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine on Mount Sinai. Health. “They are flesh-colored and small in size and cause no pain, but can sometimes be irritated by clothing [or jewelry]. “
In some cases, because skin marks are closely associated with larger bodies, it is also possible that many skin marks on a person may be a sign of diabetes or other medical conditions associated with higher weights, says Dr. Zeichner. If it is a problem for you, it is important to bring it up to your doctor.
Moles are also mostly harmless, but new or changing moles can be a problem. If you have had a mole – either plain or atypical – for a while and have not seen any changes in appearance, it is not a problem. But when birthmarks start to change color, size, shape or show asymmetry of any kind, a doctor will have to give you one at a time. The same is true if you see a brand new mole appear on your skin later in life. “I typically advise patients to have birthmarks checked out in the office if the current ones change. Or if they get new spots after 30 years, they need to be evaluated,” says Dr. Zeichner.
A good rule of thumb when inspecting birthmarks is to keep the “ABCDE method” in mind – it means checking for asymmetry, edge, color, diameter and development or changes in the mole, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Any of these changes in a mole can mean the presence of skin cancer, and therefore that mole needs to be removed and examined.
RELATED: What to Expect Before, During and After Mole Removal, According to Experts
How to remove skin marks and birthmarks?
To be clear, skin marks do not need to be removed unless they cause discomfort to the patient, and birthmarks should only be removed if a dermatologist finds them worrying.
Skin marks can be specifically removed in one of three ways: cut it off with a small pair of surgical scissors, burn it (electrocautery) or freeze it (cryosurgery) according to Dr. Jaliman and AOCD. Unfortunately, because the removal of skin marks is considered cosmetic, “this procedure is not covered by insurance,” says Dr. Zeichner.
That does not mean you have to take a DIY approach. “I do not recommend trying to remove skin marks at home because they tend to bleed markedly, which is difficult to treat at home,” he says. “Plus, it needs to be done under the right conditions to minimize the risk of an infection.”
With regard to new or changing birthmarks, your dermatologist may first take a biopsy of it in the office. “This can involve either a surface scraping or a small incision in the skin followed by a nail,” says Dr. Zeichner. This sample is then sent to a laboratory for results, and if the cells return as atypical, more of the mole (or the mole as a whole) can be removed, says Dr. Zeichner.
Three options for mole removal include: punch biopsies, shaving biopsies and surgical incisions, Ata Moshiri, MD, a board-certified dermatologist specializing in skin cancer treatment at the University of Washington Medicine, previously told Health. Removing a mole where skin cancer is detected removes more than just the mole. “A larger piece of skin is removed to ensure that a clear margin can be achieved so that none of the atypical cells are left,” says Dr. Zeichner. “When skin cancer or atypical birthmarks are detected early, they can be completely removed.”
RELATED: This woman had to wait 4 months to have a mole checked – and it turned out that she had skin cancer
Can you prevent skin marks or birthmarks?
There really is no safe way to prevent against these growths or blemishes on your skin. Skin marks are often genetic and tend to grow without a specific cause, but given their benign nature, you should not worry about prevention as they do not affect your health.
Moles are alike because they are “determined by your genetics, so there is no way to prevent them,” says Dr. Zeichner. “However, we recommend wearing sunscreen regularly because we know that exposure to UV light can be harmful to the skin and is the biggest risk factor for developing skin cancer such as melanoma. In some cases, the interaction between UV light and the pigment that producing cells within the mole can lead to cancerous changes, “he says. In addition to sunscreen, you can consider protective clothing such as hats and long-sleeved shirts when you spend more time in the sun.
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