Unregulated products to treat skin tags, moles can cause harm

The FDA recently issued a warning that there are no approved prescription or over-the-counter drugs for the treatment of moles, skin tags, or seborrheic keratoses. Photo by damiangretka/Shutterstock

It may seem tempting to remove a mole or skin tag you don’t like with a product that promises to make them disappear quickly.

Don’t do it, experts say.

Dermatologists and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warn of the dangers of using unregulated products for the do-it-yourself removal of moles, skin tags, and another type of growth known as the name of seborrheic keratoses.

Not only could this cause scarring and infection, but it can also mask skin cancer and make it harder for doctors to identify and treat it quickly.

“There are many reasons why patients should avoid trying to treat moles at home. And this is certainly the most concerning…that cancer patients often confuse skin cancer with benign moles,” said Dr. Chad Prather, board-certified dermatologist in Baton Rouge, La. “We often see patients who have skin cancer. It’s been diagnosed and their initial process was to try to treat at home with physical means or sometimes these over-the-counter products.”

This can obscure the diagnosis of very serious skin cancers, such as melanoma, Prather said.

The FDA issued an advisory earlier this month warning that there are no approved prescription or over-the-counter drugs for the treatment of moles, skin tags, or seborrheic keratoses. Products sold for this purpose — such as ointments, gels, sticks and liquids — may contain high concentrations of salicylic acid and other harmful ingredients, the FDA has warned.

The agency has received reports of people who have developed permanent skin damage, it noted in a press release.

Simply claiming it’s “organic,” “natural,” “herbal” or “homeopathic” doesn’t make it safe, according to the FDA.

A biopsy can provide information about the depth and width of a pigmented mole diagnosed as melanoma, Prather said. This size helps guide treatment.

“We judge the severity of a melanoma by how deep it is. And we really need that initial biopsy to know the true depth so that we can choose the most appropriate treatment method, whether it’s a surgery or a lymph node check or followed by immunotherapy,” says Prater.

Acid-containing products can be caustic to the skin and aren’t typically used in dermatology practices where there are so many other treatment options, said Dr. Cameron Rokhsar, associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. York.

“I’ve seen non-healing ulcers that took months to heal and then permanent scarring or pigmentary changes in the skin,” Rokhsar said. “People don’t have the medical expertise to tell benign skin tags and moles from other dangerous things. And they can put that stuff on things that really should be shown to a doctor.”

Treatment or removal depends on the diagnosis.

For a simple skin tag, a doctor can numb and cut it, ending with the application of medication to stop the bleeding, all in a sterile manner to minimize the risk of infection and scarring. Seborrheic keratosis can be removed with a blade, frozen or cauterized, if small. Sometimes even a laser is used.

“We have many treatment modalities available to us, which are obviously safe and medically proven,” Rokhsar said. “We just have better modalities than acids.”

Whether to remove something benign depends on the individual.

A board-certified dermatologist can give someone a proper diagnosis and can advise someone on the right method to remove the lesion if a person doesn’t like the way it looks or if it bothers them.

“A lot of times insurance companies pay for it anyway if something develops or something irritates. Those are covered issues,” Rokhsar noted.

Any new growth that lasts longer than three or four weeks should be evaluated by a dermatologist, Prather said. Warning signs that would warrant a visit to a dermatologist include scaling, a pearly or shiny appearance of the lesion, and a change in pigmentation or color.

“We recommend screening once a year if the patient has no history of cancer or a family history of cancer. For patients who have [a history of] skin cancer, which is the most common cancer, one in five patients will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. For these patients, they are checked a little more frequently. Often every three to six months,” Prather said.

If anyone has used any of these products and had an adverse reaction, they can use the FDA’s MedWatch Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program, by filling out and submitting a form online or by calling the FDA at 1-800-332-1088 to request a form.

More information

The American Cancer Society has more information on skin cancer.

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