Skin Spots: What Is a Seborrheic Keratosis?

Health Writer
Medically Reviewed

Seborrheic keratoses tend to run in families, but they’ve also been linked to sun exposure. These tan, brown, black, or white cauliflower-like skin growths are common among people over age 50 and look like they’ve been stuck on your skin.

Skin Spots: What Is a Seborrheic Keratosis-Seborrheic keratosis 3543-inline

The growths are not contagious, but they do tend to multiply and crop up in clusters. They can range in size from less than an inch to as big as a half dollar. Common sites for seborrheic keratoses are the back, chest, stomach, scalp, face, and neck; they don’t develop on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet.

“I often call them ‘birthday presents’ or ‘wisdom spots’ because it seems like we get more every year,” says Lauren Ploch, M.D., a Georgia dermatologist and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology.

Although seborrheic keratoses are unsightly, they usually don’t cause symptoms. Sometimes they may itch or bleed or become painful after being irritated by friction from clothes or jewelry.

Dermatologists can usually tell by looking at a seborrheic keratosis that it is benign, but if there’s any question your doctor will remove the growth for biopsy, which health insurance should cover. However, insurance will not pay if the growth is removed for cosmetic reasons.

Getting a seborrheic keratosis removed

Options for removal include shaving or scraping off or freezing with liquid nitrogen (a procedure known as cryotherapy), which causes it to fall off within days of treatment.

A downside of cryotherapy is that the skin may become permanently lighter or darker, particularly in dark-skinned individuals. Alternatively, your doctor may burn off the growths with an electric current (electrocautery).

Topical agents are currently in early stages of testing and may be on the market to treat seborrheic keratoses in a couple of years.

Always consult a dermatologist if a lesion starts to show signs that are linked to skin cancer, such as enlarging quickly, turning black, itching when it never did before, or bleeding, or if you suddenly develop a number of new skin growths.