What Are The Main Differences Between Cysts, Lesions, Lipomas And Skin Tags?

Cysts, lesions, lipomas, and skin tags are skin conditions that affect many people. Learn more about the differences between them and when to seek help from a specialist.

Consultant observing skin lesion


Skin conditions affect many people, and there are a lot of different conditions out there. But how do you tell the difference between them? This article will take a closer look at some common skin complaints including cysts, lesions, lipomas and skin tags. We will also explore the key differences between them so that you can recognise problems with your skin and know when you need to seek help from a specialist.

Learn more about the differences between cysts, lesions, lipomas and skin tags here with OneWelbeck.

What is a cyst?

A skin cyst is a lump that is filled with fluid and appears just beneath the skin. They are quite common, and harmless most of the time.

A skin cyst can:

  • Be yellow or white in colour
  • Have a dark plug that can be squeezed to release pus
  • Vary in size but grow up to a few centimetres wide

Typically, cysts aren’t painful, but they can become sore if they get infected.

The cause of a skin cyst can be attributed to a protein called keratin that is produced by the skin. Normally, keratin cells move up to the surface of the skin when they die so that they can be shed. However, sometimes they can move deeper into the skin and multiply, forming a sac under the skin.

Anybody can develop cysts, but you are more likely to develop them if you have been through puberty, struggle with acne, or have damaged hair follicles. It is worth noting that skin cysts are not contagious.

Can skin cysts go away on their own?

Unless a cyst is infected, it should disappear on its own. If it keeps growing or becomes sore and red, then an infection may have developed.

Most cysts are harmless and don’t need medical attention, but they can become infected if you try to burst them and allow bacteria to get into the wound. You can also spread the infection this way too, so if you think the cyst is infected, speak to a doctor or dermatologist.

What is a lesion?

Skin lesions can be caused by injury or damage to the skin, and they will often cause the skin to look different in that particular area. They can occur anywhere on the body.

Skin lesions can vary in appearance depending on where it is located and what has caused them, but may look like:

  • Flat marks that are a different colour to your skin tone
  • Raised bumps
  • Blisters filled with fluid
  • Raised bumps filled with pus or white fluid

Acne, birthmarks and sunburn may be classified as skin lesions.

There are many reasons why you may develop a skin lesion. The causes of skin lesions can include:

  • Sunburn
  • Allergic reactions (to allergens such as insect bites)
  • Injuries or wounds
  • Bacterial infections like herpes
  • Viral infections such as HIV
  • Underlying medical conditions such as cancer or autoimmune diseases

Sometimes, a skin lesion can itch, swell and cause you pain, but that doesn’t always mean that it is infected. If you notice that the lesion is getting bigger, causing severe pain, leaking blood or pus and refusing to heal, then you must seek medical attention so that it can be treated.

Are skin lesions contagious?

It will depend on the cause of your skin lesion as to whether or not it is contagious. Viruses and bacteria can be spread to other people and cause the same skin lesion. For example, impetigo is a contagious skin condition that can cause skin lesions so it will impact others who come into contact with your lesion.

Treatment for skin lesions will depend entirely on their cause. Usually, a topical lotion or oral medication will be prescribed or recommended to help heal them. In some cases, they may need further investigation to see if an underlying cause needs to be treated first. If the lesions are identified as cancerous, surgery and other medication may be needed.

The best way to know for sure what type of treatment your skin lesion needs is to visit a doctor.

What is a lipoma?

Skin lipomas are fatty, soft lumps that develop under the skin and rarely need treatment. They are usually painless. Key features of skin lipomas include:

  • Soft and ‘doughy’ to touch
  • Range in size — can be as small as a pea or grow to a few centimetres wide
  • Move slightly when pressed
  • No pain
  • Slow growth
  • No colour — they are the same colour as your skin tone

Skin lipomas are caused by an overgrowth of fat cells in the body. People with a family history of lipomas have a higher risk of developing them.

Skin lipomas can grow on any part of the body, but they are more commonly seen on the neck, shoulders, arms and thighs.

Can lipomas be cancerous?

Lipomas are not cancerous — a cancerous tumour of fat cells is called liposarcoma. It is also rare for a lipoma to develop into a liposarcoma. However, you must speak with a doctor if you notice any changes to your lipomas.

Most of the time, lipomas do not require treatment. But if it is bothering you, then a dermatologist may be able to help treat it using steroid injections to shrink it.

Alternatively, surgery can be used to remove the growth from under the skin.

What are skin tags?

Skin tags are small, skin-coloured growths that appear most commonly on the neck, in the armpits, around the groin, under the breasts and on the eyelids. They can grow up to 5cm wide, and can sometimes vary slightly in colour.

Skin tags hang off the skin and can be slightly raised, giving them a wart-like appearance — however, they are not contagious.

Skin tags are made of loose collagen fibres and blood vessels surrounded by skin. Causes can include:

  • Hormonal changes in pregnancy
  • Ageing
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Chafing due to skin folds

Skin tags are often harmless, and don’t need treatment unless they are impacting you on a daily basis. For example, they may affect your self-confidence or catch regularly on to clothing or jewellery.

What are skin tags a sign of?

Some people may worry that skin tags are a sign of skin cancer.

However, skin tags are not cancerous themselves, but they can be confused with cancerous growths on the skin. Skin tags do not usually change in colour or size, so if you notice these changes, you should seek advice from a dermatologist.

The main differences between cysts, lesions, lipomas and skin tags

There are quite a few differences between cysts, lesions, lipomas, and skin tags.

For example, cysts and lipomas develop beneath the surface of the skin, but a skin tag is visible on top of the skin. Cysts can leak pus when squeezed, however, skin tags, lipomas and lesions do not. If you notice that any skin tags, lipoma or lesions do start to leak pus, you will need to seek medical advice.

Another distinction is the cause of the skin condition. For instance, lesions can be caused by injuries, but cysts, lipomas and skin tags can be the result of something happening inside the body, like a build-up of fatty cells.

Skin lesions can also, potentially, be contagious but cysts, lipomas and skin tags are not contagious at all.

When to see a doctor

If you’re concerned that your skin growth isn’t getting better, no matter what kind it is, then it’s important that you see a doctor.

It is also vital that you look out for signs of infection. These can include pus leaking out of the site, fever, chills and vomiting. Pay attention to the size and colour of your skin growth as well — if it changes, then it needs to be checked by an expert.

Knowing the difference between any skin growths that you have can help you know whether you need to seek medical treatment or not.

If you have any questions about any skin growths that you have on your body, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at OneWelbeck

What Are The Main Differences Between Cysts, Lesions, Lipomas And Skin Tags?