Skin lesion removal

Your health expert: Dr Anton Alexandroff, Consultant Dermatologist
Content editor review by Liz Woolf, March 2024
Next review due March 2027

Skin lesion removal means removing a mole, wart, skin tag or other skin growth. Most skin growths (lesions) are harmless. But your doctor may recommend you have one removed if it’s causing significant problems or could be cancerous. You may want to have a lesion removed privately if it bothers you or you don’t like how it looks.

Types of skin lesion

Skin lesions are areas of skin that are growing abnormally or look different from the surrounding normal skin. Types of benign (non-cancerous) skin lesions include:

  • moles – small, dark-coloured growths, mostly appearing during childhood
  • dermatofibroma – firm, raised, brown, purple or red growths that may develop after an insect bite or minor injury
  • actinic keratosis – rough, scaly patches that develop on areas exposed to the sun
  • seborrhoeic keratosis – grey, black or brown raised lesions on your body or scalp that are more common with age
  • keratoacanthoma – rapidly-growing lesions with a solid, scaly core that normally develop in sun exposed areas such as your face
  • skin tags – very common, small flesh-coloured growths forming where skin creases or gets rubbed
  • pyogenic granuloma – small, bright red nodules that often develop after an injury and bleed easily, so are often removed
  • sebaceous cysts – round lumps that can become infected, ranging in size from a few millimetres to several centimetres
  • warts – small, rough lumps caused by infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV)

Actinic keratoses can change into a type of skin cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma. So your doctor will usually recommend removing them. Keratoacanthomas can look very similar to squamous cell carcinomas, so are usually removed to rule that out.

It’s important to see your GP if you notice any new changes to your skin, especially if it's a change in the size, shape or colour of a mole.

When skin lesions should be removed

Your GP will recommend removal if they think your skin lesion is or could become cancerous. Some benign (non-cancerous) skin lesions look very like skin cancer. The only way to tell for sure is to have the lesion removed and examined in a laboratory.

If your skin lesion has no signs of cancer, you don't need to have it removed. But if it’s causing you significant problems – for example, catching on clothing – you may prefer to have it taken off. You may also decide you want a skin lesion removed if you're unhappy with how it looks. But if this is the case, you'll usually need to pay to have it removed privately.

Many procedures are likely to leave a scar. Your doctor will do their best to keep the scar to a minimum, but it may be noticeable. They will explain to you what to expect before starting the procedure.

Your GP may be able to remove your skin lesion at your local surgery. Or they may prescribe a skin lesion removal cream or gel for you to use at home. For some types of skin lesion, especially those that may be cancerous, your GP will refer you to a dermatologist (a doctor specialising in identifying and treating skin conditions).

How skin lesions are removed

Skin lesions can be cut out, frozen off, treated with special creams or destroyed using heat, laser or light therapy. The treatment you’re offered will depend on the type of skin lesion you have and where it is on your body. Your GP or dermatologist will let you know which method will work best for you.

Your doctor will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your procedure, including any pain you might have. This is your chance to ask questions so you understand what will happen. You don’t have to go ahead if you decide you don’t want the procedure. Once you understand and agree, you’ll be asked to sign a consent form.

Below is information about treatments you may have.

Complete excision (excision biopsy)

This is the standard way to remove a lesion where there is any possibility that it might be cancerous. It’s a type of skin biopsy – this means the whole skin lesion is cut out and removed. It’s usually done with a local anaesthetic to block any pain. Your doctor uses a surgical blade to remove the whole lesion, as well as some normal skin around the edge.

Your doctor will close the wound using stitches and cover it with a dressing.

Partial removal (shave biopsy)

This is usually used for skin tags and seborrhoeic keratoses. Partial removal is a technique to ‘shave off’ lesions that stick out from your skin.

Your doctor cuts across the base of the lesion, so it’s level with your surrounding skin. You may also have cautery. This uses heat to seal your skin and stop it from bleeding.

Heat treatment (electrocautery)

Electrocautery can be used to remove skin tags. Your doctor applies a heated coil to the base of the lesion to remove it. You may also have electrocautery to stop bleeding after other types of treatment.

Creams and gels

Your doctor may prescribe a skin lesion removal cream or gel to get rid of a wart or actinic keratosis. These contain medicines such as imiquimod, salicylic acid, 5-fluorouracil or diclofenac. You usually need to apply the cream or gel daily for several weeks.

Freezing (cryotherapy)

You may have actinic or seborrhoeic keratoses, warts or skin tags frozen off. Your doctor applies liquid nitrogen to the area for around 10 seconds, using either cotton wool or a spray. A blister forms after the treatment. It dries up to form a scab, which falls off a few weeks later.

Scooping away (curettage)

You may have this treatment for actinic keratoses or seborrhoeic keratoses. Your doctor uses a curette ‘spoon’ to gently scoop away the lesion. You may have electrocautery (heat treatment) afterwards, to stop any bleeding.

Laser therapy

Your doctor may recommend treatment with a laser if you have a wart, a dermatofibroma or an actinic keratosis patch on your lip.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

Your doctor may recommend PDT if you have actinic keratosis. Your doctor puts a cream on the lesion and then shines a bright light on it. The light activates a chemical in the cream that destroys the lesion.

Aftercare for skin lesion removal

You can usually go home as soon as you feel ready. Your doctor or nurse will give you some advice about caring for your wound. You may have a date for a follow-up appointment and to have any stitches taken out.

If you've had a local anaesthetic to remove your skin lesion, it may take an hour or two before the feeling comes back. Take care not to bump or knock the affected area, and don't have hot drinks if it’s numb anywhere near your mouth. Your wound may feel tender and sore after the anaesthetic has worn off.

If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and, if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

Recovering from skin lesion removal

Healing time

If you've had minor surgery such as a skin biopsy or curettage, it can take a few weeks for your wound to heal. Your doctor or nurse will tell you when to have your stitches removed; it's usually within 14 days.

It normally takes a couple of weeks, but occasionally longer, for a lesion to scab and fall off after cryotherapy. Your skin may look completely normal after this but if you have darker skin, you may notice it looks lighter or darker. This normally improves with time.

After photodynamic therapy, it'll take a few days for a scab to form, and can take several weeks to heal. Because of the light-sensitising drug you’ve had, you must use sunscreen that’s at least SPF50 for 48 hours after your treatment.

If you have treatment with a cream such as imiquimod or 5-fluorouracil, the area should heal within a few weeks of finishing your course of treatment.

Looking after your wound

Your doctor or nurse will give you specific advice relating to the type of procedure you've had. They may also ask you to:

  • avoid touching or scratching the affected area, particularly if you've had stitches
  • keep the wound dry for up to 48 hours or until dressings have been removed, then clean gently every day
  • avoid picking scabs that form or doing anything to accidentally dislodge them

If the area where your skin lesion was removed gets increasingly painful or becomes red and sore, contact the doctor who performed your procedure. You could have an infection in the wound and may need antibiotics.

Side-effects of skin lesion removal

Side-effects are unwanted but mostly temporary effects that you may have after treatment. Exact side-effects will depend on the type of treatment you've had, but it's common to have some pain, inflammation and swelling.

All surgical skin lesion removal procedures, including biopsy and curettage, leave you with a scar. How big and how noticeable this is depends on the type of procedure you’ve had and how much skin is removed. Your doctor will explain before your treatment what scarring to expect. Your scar is likely to be red and raised at first, but most get smaller and fade significantly over time.

Some types of creams and gels can cause the skin to become inflamed. You may have itching, burning, redness and pain. This is an expected effect of these treatments and shows that your skin is responding. The inflammation will settle down within a few weeks of finishing the treatment.

Complications of skin lesion removal

Complications are when problems occur during or after the procedure. Complications of having a skin lesion removed include the following.

  • Infection can develop after many skin lesion removal procedures. The affected area may become increasingly painful, red or sore and you may have a discharge (pus). Contact your doctor if you have a discharge because you may need antibiotics.
  • Numbness can happen after cryotherapy if nerves on the skin surface are frozen. It's usually only temporary but may last a few months.
  • Your skin may look lighter (hypopigmentation) or darker (hyperpigmentation) after treatment. This can happen if you’ve had cryotherapy, photodynamic therapy or, more rarely, after treatment with some types of medicated creams. The affected area will be more prone to sunburn, and you'll need to use sunscreen to protect it.
  • Excessive bleeding may occur. It’s usual for the wound to bleed a little after surgery, but occasionally it can be more severe. If this happens, your doctor may apply firm pressure to the wound, inject a substance that stops bleeding into the wound or stitch any blood vessels.

Some people are prone to unusual red or raised scars (keloids). They are more common in people with darker skin who are in their teens or twenties. Keloid scars are more likely if you or a relative has had one before. Unlike normal scars, they can develop after relatively minor skin damage. They are commonest on the shoulders, upper chest, neck and earlobes.

Keloid scars can be difficult to treat but your doctor may suggest:

  • silicone sheets or gels, which can make the scar thinner and paler
  • steroid injections or creams
  • laser treatment or cryotherapy

Yes, skin tags can be removed. These are small, flesh-coloured bumps on your skin. They often form in places where your skin creases or gets rubbed. As they don’t usually cause problems, you may have to have them removed privately. There is information on treatments in our section on how skin lesions are removed.

If you notice any new mole, spot, lump or patch on your skin that doesn't heal after a number of weeks, see your GP. It's important to get it checked. Most skin lesions are benign (non-cancerous) and aren't harmful. But some skin lesions can turn out to be cancer. There is more information in our section on when skin lesions should be removed.

How long it takes to recover depends on the type of treatment you have. There are many different ways to remove or treat a skin lesion. Our section on how skin lesions are removed will explain the most common treatments. Our section on recovering from skin lesion removal explains how long it takes to get over each type of treatment.

Keloid scars, also known as keloids, are abnormal scars that grow larger than the original wound. We don’t know why some people develop keloid scars. They’re more common in people with dark er skin and tend to develop between the ages of 10 and 30. There is more information about keloid scars in our section on complications of skin lesion removal.

More on this topic

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