How To Easily Tell If A Skin Condition Is Dangerous — Or Not


Things That Go Bump

How did that get there? It’s a natural thought when you discover an imperfection on your skin. Most times, those little bumps are benign annoyances. But sometimes, they’re trying to tell you something important about your health.  

Arianne Shadi Kourosh, M.D., Director of Community Health for the Department of Dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital and faculty at Harvard Medical School, says whatever pops up on your skin is worth discussing with your dermatologist. Because when you point out changes in your skin, you may actually be detecting a serious issue which, if treated early, can save your life. Many times, she notes, it probably won’t be a problem. 

Some of those skin issues might include the following:

Skin Tags

Flaps of skin that look like tiny, movable pimples can often pop up on your body—particularly in places where you tend to have skin folds. These benign growths develop for many reasons, Dr. Kourosh says, and may be related to friction on the skin. That’s why you’ll often find them in armpits or in places where a limb or clothing frequently hits the body. No worries, though: Skin tags are never dangerous.

Acanthosis Nigricans

If you notice any changes in the texture and coloring of your skin, especially on the back of your neck or in your armpits, you should see your dermatologist. This particular condition,characterized by darkening and thickening, often leads people to the doctor wondering whether they can bleach or lighten the spots, Dr. Kourosh says. But when she sees it, she begins looking more into their health because it is not just a cosmetic problem. “It is a sign of insulin resistance,” and can be an indicator of diabetes. In some cases, acanthosis nigricans can also signal a cancerous tumor, particularly in the stomach, colon, or liver. 

It may be the result of hormonal changes in your body or be a side effect from certain medications, particularly prednisone or other steroids. Hormone-based therapies could also be to blame. Whatever the cause, discuss these skin changes with your physician.


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 Moles are actually skin cells that have clustered together to form a darker pigmented spot on our skin. We all have them. Most moles arrive before you turn 30 and live peacefully on your skin without a moment’s complaint. As we age, more moles can pop up, usually due to sun exposure. They are only problematic when they begin to change—in shape, color, or diameter. If yours get larger, have irregularly shaped edges, or just look different, see your doctor. Should they begin to bleed, itch, or otherwise erupt, see your dermatologist immediately.

Seborrheic Keratosis

At some point, you might notice a dark, scaly spot on your body that never was there before. It’s worth it to have your dermatologist check it out, but it is most likely a skin repair job gone bad. Dr. Kourosh says the skin responds to a traumatic assault on it (think sunburn) by working overtime to fix itself. The result is seborrheic keratosis, a mole-like raised bump that looks flaky and brown

“They make up an overwhelming majority of unsightly spots on the skin,” says Dr. Kourosh, and tend to pop up on legs, chest, and arms, where sunburns can do their angry work. “Most people get them as they get older.” They also run in families.


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 These tiny white bumps are extremely common and usually arise around the eyelid. “They are actually part of a scarring process,” Dr. Kourosh says, explaining that when the gentle skin around the eyes is traumatized through rubbing, these bumps can grow up in response. “They are actually proteins that are part of the skin.” 

Milia can be treated with a retinoid or retinol cream that increases the rate of skin turnover and coaxes keratin to come more quickly to the surface of the skin. “It’s kind of like inducing a slow peel,” she says, noting the cream is applied every day for several months.

Actinic Keratosis

Actinic means “induced by the sun.” Actinic keratosis is an overgrowth of the skin brought on by excessive sun exposure. These scaly patches are actually precancerous spots that do need to be removed by your dermatologist, Dr. Kourosh says. They usually appear on your face, arms, hands, or upper chest, and when they are removed early on, will prevent the development of skin cancer.

The Alphabet Test

“It takes a trained eye to tell the difference between something benign and something cancerous,” says Dr. Koroush. “So, if you have a spot that is curious, have it checked. The overwhelming majority of skin cancers are preventable if caught early on. You should examine your skin and have it checked every year.” A handy way to understand when skin growths may be problematic is to refer tothe ABCDEs of melanoma detection.

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