You look at your body in the mirror and … wait, where’d that new spot come from? Of course, your brain jumps to the worst possible conclusion: skin cancer.
Before you freak out, you should know there are a lot of causes for a new mark or bump on your skin, and many are completely harmless (even if they are annoying to look at or deal with).
Some of these pink, red, or brown spots appear very noticeably on fair to medium skin, but can be harder to detect if your tone is deeper, explains Ife J. Rodney, M.D., F.A.A.D., founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics. That’s because people with darker complexions have more melanin, which gives the skin its brown color.
While it can be tricky to see red, pink, or brown spots on darker skin, it is possible. “It usually comes along with texture changes like fine bumps, a raised border, or a scaly surface,” Dr. Rodney says, which applies to those with fairer skin tones as well. “The skin may also itch or have a burning sensation.” If you happen to have these symptoms, Dr. Rodney recommends keeping an eye on your skin in that area: Usually by the time the dark spots appear, the redness and itching may have gone away.
This is part of the reason why it’s so important for everyone—regardless of skin tone—to see a board-certified dermatologist. “Your dermatologist would be able to spot both the obvious as well as the subtle skin findings in different skin types,” Dr. Rodney says.
Here, a breakdown of all the not-so-serious skin spots (and a couple of concern), what we know about how to identify them, and tips to return your skin to its former glory.
1. Cherry angioma
A cherry angioma can look like a little red bump, though it may lie completely flat on your skin. It’s actually just a cluster of dilated blood vessels.
“Patients will come in and say they keep getting more and more,” says , assistant professor in the department of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. “And it’s true, you get them as you age,” she says. They can also run in families—so if your older sister has some, chances are you will, too. , M.D.
The good news: They’re totally benign. If you want them removed, your doc can treat them with intense pulsed light, a light therapy that is similar to a laser treatment, says Michelle Pelle, M.D., dermatologist and medical director at MedDerm Associates in San Diego.
Psoriasis is a common autoimmune condition in which the body produces skin cells at a rapid pace, causing them to pile up on the surface. This can result in red spots, raised bumps, and crusty-looking patches of skin, but the exact symptoms can vary depending on your skin color. “Inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis may appear different in Black patients,” Dr. Rodney says. “While psoriasis appears as red, scaly plaques in light skin, you may only see brown plaques in dark skin.”
While there are several types of psoriasis, 80 to 90% of people with the disease have plaque psoriasis, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation. These skin lesions can be red or pink in color topped with white or silvery scales that feel itchy or sore. They most often show up on the elbows, knees, lower back, and scalp. If you think you may be dealing with psoriasis, be sure to talk to your doctor, as it typically requires prescribed medications and therapies, depending on the severity.
3. Keratosis pilaris (a.k.a. chicken skin)
If you notice tiny, rough red spots on your skin—especially on your upper arms, thighs, cheeks, or buttocks—you may be dealing with keratosis pilaris, which are plugs of dead skin cells, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). The common condition is totally harmless, but can cause itching and dryness.
If the appearance of them bothers you, treating dry skin will be your best, the AAD says. These bumps often get worse in the winter, thanks to lower humidity in the air. Applying body lotions regularly, or even moisturizers that contain chemical exfoliants such as lactic or salicylic acids (we like this one from CeraVe) can help even out the skin’s texture. If general exfoliation and diligent moisturizing habits don’t seem to do the trick, talk to your dermatologist about prescription treatments.
4. Skin tags
Skin tags are harmless fleshy growths that often pop up in clusters. They can be annoying, especially if they’re located around your bra strap or in a spot that your clothing tends to rub.
That constant friction can make them irritated and inflamed, but if your skin tag is not bothering you, you don’t have to remove it. And if they are? Don’t try to get rid of them yourself by cutting or scraping them off.
“People will use non-sterile tools and come in with inflamed, irritated, and infected skin,” Dr. Elbuluk says. The only safe course is to see your dermatologist, who will either freeze or numb it before snipping it off.
Folliculitis is an infection underneath your hair follicles, according to the AAD. It can look a lot like a sudden acne breakout, but each spot will have a red ring circling it. Unfortunately, the condition can be painful but also not feel like anything at all, as symptoms vary widely. The infection can also make the skin a bit more swollen and itchy.
Anything that damages your hair follicles—say, wearing tight clothing, rubbing your skin often, chafing, shaving, or even hanging out in a dirty hot tub—can make it easier for germs to set up shop and cause an infection, the AAD says.
Folliculitis will usually go away on its own if you stop doing whatever caused it. Applying warm compresses and wearing loose, breathable clothing can also help. But because it can look a lot like acne, talk to your doctor to ensure a proper diagnosis if your symptoms persist.
Eczema is an umbrella term for a cluster of skin conditions that cause red, itchy, dry, swollen patches anywhere on the body, but particularly the hands, feet, face, cheeks, or insides of the knees or elbows. Eczema can also make the skin look and feel rough and cracked, bumpy, thick or brittle, and blistered.
There are several types of eczema, and they’re all triggered by different things—everything from environmental factors to stress to genetics. Atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema, is linked to inflammation and the immune system, while contact dermatitis is caused by allergen or irritant (like certain chemicals or acids—say, in your skincare or detergent).
After a proper diagnosis from your dermatologist (this is important, since eczema can look like other conditions), symptoms are often managed through OTC anti-inflammatory ointments and moisturizers or prescription drugs and injections.
If you’ve ever dealt with a wart, you know just how stubborn they can be. Warts are actually caused by human papillomavirus, which consists of several strains that can affect various parts of your body (yep, including your genitals.)
The good news is, they’re typically harmless and painless if they appear on other parts of your body, like your hands or face. However, plantar warts can develop on the soles of your feet, which can become painful and interfere with running or walking, since you’re constantly putting pressure on it.
Resist the urge to yank it off yourself, because that just opens the gates for infection. Instead, talk to your derm, who will first perform a biopsy to make sure it’s not skin cancer. Then, he or she can remove it with prescription meds, laser treatment, or by freezing or burning it off. Then, make sure you take these steps to prevent another wart from popping up.
You’ll find a dermatofibroma most often on your arms and legs, and they can be pink or brown. The bump is made up of fibrous scar tissue, which can form as a reaction to something like a bug bite or ingrown hair.
“A patient will come in and tell me that she’s had this bump that’s been on her skin for years and it never goes away,” Dr. Elbuluk says.
Like a skin tag or cherry angioma, these are perfectly harmless. But because it can look like a mole, you’ll want a derm to take a look to determine which one it is, as “moles can change into melanoma, but a dermatofibroma does not,” says Dr. Pelle.
9. Solar lentigines
You know them by their more common name: sun spots (or age spots). They look like a cluster of moles that appear in sun-exposed areas like your arms, face, neck, upper chest, and legs. While they’re related to how much sun exposure you’ve gotten, they don’t develop into skin cancer, says Dr. Elbuluk.
Still, they’re hard to tell apart from moles that could turn cancerous. Also, having a lot of them makes it even harder for you to examine your skin yourself—all the more reason to get an annual skin check from a board-certified dermatologist. If they are simply sun spots and they bother you, here is how to get rid of them.
10. Seborrheic keratosis
Seborrheic keratosis is a dark, scaly, benign crusty overgrowth of the top layer of your skin, explains Dr. Elbuluk. These are common as you reach middle age and beyond. Your derm can remove them by cutting them off, using liquid nitrogen, or treating them with a laser.
But it is important to note that “because it’s benign, insurance won’t cover it unless it’s in a bad spot, like on your collar and chronically irritated,” Dr. Elbuluk says.
11. Tinea infection
Tinea can look like a small red birthmark or discoloration—almost like a stain on your skin. But these spots are actually a kind of fungal infection, including ringworm and athlete’s foot, according to the National Institutes of Health. Tinea comes in various shapes and sizes, and the kind that infects your skin can spread (and infect other people) or become worse if not treated.
Fortunately, treatment is often as simple as washing the infected area with a prescription soap or shampoo, which your doctor can hook you up with.
12. Basal or squamous cell carcinoma
Yes, this is one of the bad ones—but many people don’t realize there are multiple types of skin cancer, Dr. Elbuluk says. “I’ll ask if someone has ever had skin cancer, and they will tell me, ‘No, just a basal cell.’”
Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common types of skin cancer; more than 3 million people are diagnosed with them each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Unlike a benign mole, they often appear red, scaly, or pearly in appearance. While they’re not as deadly as melanoma, Dr. Elbuluk still recommends telling your dermatologist if a mole looks odd or is growing, changing, or starts to itch and bleed.
The best way to keep skin cancer away? Slather on the sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. You can find a few derm-approved options below.
Melanoma isn’t as common as basal or squamous cell carcinomas—it only accounts for about 1% of skin cancers—but it’s far more deadly if you don’t catch it early, says the ACS.
To spot melanoma, use the ABCDE trick: Look for moles that are asymmetrical, have an irregular or less defined border, appear uneven in color, are greater than the size of a pea in diameter, and that evolve over time. (These melanoma pictures can help you visualize each of these changes.)
That’s why taking note of any new spots on your skin is so important. If you catch a suspicious mole early enough, your dermatologist can remove it and prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of your body—which can save your life.
Additional reporting by Alisa Hrustic and Korin Miller
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