Skin Cysts and Cancerous Growths: What is the Difference?


What is the difference between skin cysts and cancerous growths?

New bumps or lumps on the skin can be concerning, especially if you aren’t sure whether it is a cancerous growth or a benign cyst. While it is often possible to distinguish between the two by touch and appearance, in some cases additional tests may be needed to determine which it is, says Cecilia Larocca, MD, a dermatologist and skin cancer specialist at Dana-Farber.

Cysts are sacs or pouches that can be filled with fluid, gas, or semi-solid substances. In soft tissue they are usually filled with semi-solid substances like dead skin material. No one knows what causes them. Although cysts can occur anywhere in the body, most cysts of the skin appear as rounded, raised areas, often with a pore-like opening at the top known as a punctum. They are usually moveable and feel rubbery to the hand. Cysts may occasionally drain thick, curd-like material but should not be lanced or drained at home as this may lead to inflammation or infection, and the cysts often regrow. Cysts can only be removed surgically.

A skin tumor tends to be firmer to the touch than a cyst, Larocca says, and doesn’t move if pressed, although these differences must be assessed by a trained physician.

In determining whether a skin lump is a cyst or a possible tumor, doctors may ask the patient how long the lump has been there and whether it has grown, changed color, or is painful. Lumps that don’t have the classic features of a skin cyst may be removed for testing by a pathologist to see if they are composed of cancerous or other abnormal cells. There are also numerous other benign growths that can occur under the skin aside from cysts.

Learn more about skin cancer and melanoma treatment at Dana-Farber.

Comments Sort By Newest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Blue Captcha Image


Make An Appointment

For adults: 877-960-1562

Quick access: Appointments as soon as the next day for new adult patients

For children: 888-733-4662

All content in these blogs is provided by independent writers and does not represent the opinions or advice of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute or its partners.

Latest Tweets

Dana-Farber @danafarber
Fact Check: Can Breast Implants Cause Cancer?
Dana-Farber @danafarber
#DYK: While relatively uncommon, approximately 15,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed w/ #biliarycancer each year.…
Dana-Farber @danafarber
From young patient to college student, Hannah has been all smiles with the support of her family and caregivers:…

Republish our posts on your blog

Interested in sharing one of our stories on your blog? Feel free to republish this content! We just ask that you credit Dana-Farber, link to the original article, and refrain from making edits that change the original context. Questions? Email the editors at