Various devices claim to let you remove moles, skin tags and other lesions at home — here’s why you should think twice before tackling this procedure without a doctor.
As the world continues to grapple with the spread of COVID-19, some states and towns are beginning to reopen while others are still locked down, with limited transportation, office openings and in-person appointments. Regardless of where your community is in the reopening process, it’s likely you’ve taken part in an “at-home” version of something you’d normally do elsewhere. Home workouts, cooking meals you’d usually have in a restaurant and virtual hangouts have all risen in popularity. While these lifestyle changes might be inconvenient, most of them generally won’t cause you harm (bad DIY haircuts notwithstanding!). Some things are better left to the professionals, however, including the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer.
At-home mole removal devices may be a tempting purchase for people attempting to take skin concerns into their own hands. But products that promise to burn, freeze or use lasers to remove moles or skin tags come with plenty of potentially harmful side effects and unintended consequences. According to Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD, president of The Skin Cancer Foundation, they simply aren’t worth the risk.
“This isn’t like giving yourself a haircut,” she says. “There are very serious risks associated with trying to remove a mole yourself, whether it’s with a tool called a mole removal pen, plasma corrector pen or something found around the house. I’ve had people tell me they’ve tried to remove moles with everything from duct tape to scissors.”
The main problem associated with removing something from your skin on your own is that there’s no way for you to tell if you’re removing a benign lesion — or a malignant one. Dr Sarnoff says that dermatologists spend years training to recognize suspicious lesions, and even after identifying one, they perform a biopsy to determine exactly what the specimen is before deciding how to move forward.
“This isn’t like giving yourself a haircut,” Dr. Sarnoff says. “There are very serious risks associated with trying to remove a mole yourself.”
“You may chop off a mole you don’t like, thinking you’re saving money by not going to the doctor, but you might actually be chopping off a melanoma,” says Dr. Sarnoff.
Melanoma is a dangerous form of skin cancer that can rapidly spread to other organs if not caught at an early stage. Dr. Sarnoff explains that if you cut off a primary melanoma yourself, melanoma cells can remain in the skin and spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body — all without your knowledge. A board-certified dermatologist would perform a biopsy on the tissue to be sure of any diagnosis. If the mole were malignant, the patient would likely need further surgery to remove any remaining cancerous cells and make sure the cancer has not spread.
Another risk of at-home mole removal is infection. Dr. Sarnoff says people removing moles at home are unlikely to pay the same level of attention to sanitation of tools, prepping the skin and postoperative care as a dermatologist would. An infection will delay healing at the site and increase chances of scarring. Not to mention that the risk of scarring after an at-home removal is already high compared to when you have a lesion removed by a dermatologist. Dr. Sarnoff says at-home removals can result in chicken pox-like, indented scars or hypertrophic, bumpy ones. Either way, a high risk of scarring can be counterintuitive to the desire to remove a mole in the first place.
The final issue with at-home mole removal is the chance of ineffective partial removal. “Basically, the removal may not totally work, and you end up only cutting off the top of the mole,” Dr. Sarnoff explains. “This leaves some of the mole down in deeper layers of the skin, so you haven’t achieved the cosmetic look you want. And the fact that the mole has been tampered with can cause problems down the road if you ever want it removed properly.”
Dr. Sarnoff says “zapping” a mole with an at-home laser device can also cause changes to the cells that make them look problematic, even when they aren’t. The odd appearance of these cells could lead a pathologist to misdiagnose a benign mole as melanoma, meaning you would have to go through therapy for melanoma that you never needed.
Between the cosmetic risks, potential for incorrect removal and very real risk of not properly addressing a dangerous skin cancer, Dr. Sarnoff says trying to remove a mole at home is highly inadvisable.
“I would never recommend at-home mole or skin tag removal,” she says. “Call a dermatologist, and don’t take no for an answer if you’re concerned about something new, changing or unusual on your skin.”
Dr. Sarnoff notes that during the COVID-19 pandemic, getting into a doctor’s office may be more difficult, but you can ask to send photographs to your physician or make a teledermatology appointment to get an assessment. The important thing is getting your concerns taken care of by a professional so you can have peace of mind that they’ve been addressed thoroughly and safely.