What is seborrheic keratosis, moles, warts?

A clinician examines several moles on a patient’s back

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As your skin ages, it’s natural for more bumps, spots and blemishes to crop up, says Shari Lipner, a dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian in New York City.

In many cases, they’re simply a minor nuisance.

But sometimes they can signify something more worrisome, such as skin cancer — which becomes more common with age.

The evidence that routine skin checks — by you or a dermatologist — reduce cancer death isn’t strong. Unless you’re high-risk, just see a doctor when you spot anything concerning.

Here is a brief guide to the harmless growths, the ones that are potential problems and how to tell the difference so that you can treat each properly.

Cherry angiomas

How to identify them: These red, vascular growths can appear anywhere on the body. They’re a cluster of dilated blood vessels at the surface of the skin, usually smaller than a pencil eraser, and can be flat or raised, says Y. Claire Chang, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. “Some people think that they’re moles turned red,” says Lipner. “But they’re a completely different category of growth.”

Treatment: None is needed. Cherry angiomas are harmless.

Skin tags

How to identify them: Skin tags can be flat or raised, fleshy stalks of skin that typically grow in skin folds on the neck, underarms, eyelids, groin and under the breasts.

Treatment: Unless they become irritated or visually bothersome, these harmless growths can be left alone. Sometimes they even fall off without any intervention, often after turning red or black, Chang says.

Seborrheic keratoses

How to identify them: Sometimes called “barnacles of aging,” these growths range in color from beige to black but typically are tan or brown. They can grow thick, with a warty or bumpy surface, or they might be more smooth, with a brown, candle-wax appearance. “We’re not sure why they develop,” says Lipner, “but age, friction, sunlight [and genetics] all seem to play some role.”

Treatment: Though some can look scary, all are benign, Lipner says. They can, however, become irritated or itchy, or even bleed, especially if they rub against skin, clothing or jewelry. If you want to remove them, talk to your dermatologist; they can often be snipped, shaved, burned, frozen or lasered off. This diagnosis should be confirmed by a dermatologist because seborrheic keratoses can resemble melanoma, a serious skin cancer.

Sun spots

How to identify them: These brownish marks — commonly found on sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face, hands and chest — usually aren’t dangerous, though there are exceptions. Regular sunscreen use can help prevent them.

Treatment: Laser treatments are most effective at lightening or removing sun spots. Some over-the-counter and prescription lightening creams (those containing hydroquinone, for example) or chemical peels may be helpful too, along with cryotherapy and microdermabrasion. Because sun spots indicate heavy sun exposure, be on the lookout for signs of skin cancer, Lipner says, such as changing moles. Sun spots can also turn cancerous and should be evaluated if they change, grow or bleed, Chang says.


How to identify them: These small, round skin growths, which occur when pigment cells grow in clusters, are also called “nevi,” and almost all adults have at least a few. They’re generally pink, tan or brown, and sometimes they fade away in older people.

Treatment: Watch your moles closely, and go to a dermatologist if you find a strange new one or notice an old one changing; both could be signs of skin cancer. Be especially alert to a mole that’s asymmetrical, has irregular borders, is more than one color, has a diameter greater than a pencil eraser, evolves over time or is unique. Your dermatologist can excise a mole, typically in-office with a local anesthetic and a surgical blade or scalpel. If it contains cancer cells, the doctor will discuss your next steps.

 Copyright 2018, Consumer Reports Inc.

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