Seborrheic keratosis

This is a common benign skin growth, often referred to as a ‘barnacle’, which develops on the face, neck and body. These may appear as single spots but are more likely to develop as a cluster of brown or black coloured patches with a waxy appearance.

The good news is that these growths are painless and don’t require medical treatment. But many people view them as unsightly or find that they rub up against their clothing and so choose to have them removed.

Who gets seborrheic keratosis?

This skin condition affects people of any age but is more likely to develop in people with a family history of this condition or the middle aged.

Causes of seborrheic keratosis

This is hard to say. No-one is certain as to the cause of these growths. But there is a genetic link. If anyone in your family has seborrheic keratosis then you will probably do the same.

Symptoms of seborrheic keratosis

These are small, scaly round spots, similar to warts, which are slightly raised above the skin. They are black, brown or pale coloured with a waxy surface and may cause itching.

You may develop a single spot or several spots which form a group.

Avoid picking, scratching or rubbing them even though they are itchy as can lead to soreness, bleeding and inflammation.

Diagnosing seborrheic keratosis

Do you need to see your GP? If your spots develop quickly or change size, shape or colour then visit your GP. Do this if they become infected or start bleeding.

If you have a spot which increases in size, has changed colour and starts to bleed then seek medical advice as this may be an early sign of skin cancer.

Your GP will confirm a diagnosis after looking at this skin rash and asking you a few questions which includes your family history. He or she may refer you for a skin biopsy.

A skin biopsy is a common procedure where a small sample of skin is removed and sent to a laboratory for analysis.

Treatment for seborrheic keratosis

Seborrheic keratosis doesn’t usually require treatment but there are exceptions to this. If you find these spots irritating, are upset by them or find that they bleed after contact with clothing then treatment is available.

The main form of treatment is removal which is easy and painless and most importantly, does not cause any scarring.

Treatment options:

  • Curettage: a procedure where spots are scraped off the surface of the skin. Only suitable for small, flat spots.
  • Cryosurgery: the spots are frozen with liquid nitrogen which kills them. Not suitable for large spots or growths.
  • Electrocautery: a procedure which uses heat to remove the spots. It is used in isolation or in conjunction with curettage. There is a risk of scarring if it is not done correctly.
  • Ablation: this is performed with a laser. A beam of light is directed at a group of spots which vaporises them.

Find out more about cryosurgery and laser therapy in our dermatology treatments section.

Complications of seborrheic keratosis

Treatment is straightforward and successful but there is a risk of complications. These include bleeding or infection, mistaken diagnosis (may be melanoma instead) and psychological distress caused by the rash.