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What is a seborrheic keratosis, or SK?

Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Medicine
A seborrheic keratosis, or SK for short, is a brown, black, or pale spot that looks like a mole and commonly pops up on the chest, back, shoulders, face, or abdomen. SKs may be raised and waxy or scaly and look like they are stuck on, as though they can easily be scratched off. SKs may itch.
SKs run in families and tend to increase in number as we age. They are so common that most people will have at least one in their lifetime.
Only very rarely does a seborrheic keratosis become dangerous. If they are bothersome, a treatment with liquid nitrogen will typically make them go away. The bad news, however, is you are likely to make more.
Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
These growths on the skin can be unsightly and get irritated and bleed, but seborrheic keratoses (pronounced seb-o-REE-ik ker-ah-TOE-sees) are very common and noncancerous. Typically, they start as small yellow or tan bumps and then gradually turn dark brown or black and develop a wartlike surface. They appear most often on the face, shoulders, chest, and back. Seborrheic keratoses are usually a little bit raised, so they look like they've been stuck on the surface of the skin. Some Africans, African Americans, and other dark-skinned individuals get a variant of the condition called dermatosis papulosa nigra, which consists of many black lesions on the cheeks.

People sometimes mistake seborrheic keratosis for melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, because in both, the growths are dark and have an irregular shape. Smaller, heavily pigmented seborrheic keratoses can, in fact, look a little like melanoma lesions. A dermatologist can usually tell the difference just by looking at them. If there's any doubt, he or she should get a biopsy (a tiny sample from the lesion) for microscopic examination.

It's not clear what causes seborrheic keratoses, although the tendency to have them is inherited, so there's probably a genetic component. Sun exposure is not a cause. Some people have just a few, others have hundreds.

I don't encourage the practice, but you can flick off a seborrheic keratosis. Or sometimes they get scraped off accidentally. Either way, pretty much the only risk is a little bleeding.

If seborrheic keratoses are treated, it's usually for cosmetic reasons. About 90% of the time I freeze them off. The procedure is similar to wart removal, but quicker. They can be scraped (curettage) or shaved off with a special cutting instrument. Removal sometimes creates an area with little or no pigment, so it looks white.
Harvard Medical School Skin Care and Repair

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.