What is the difference between cysts and lipomas? How lumps under the skin are treated

Written by: Mr Alastair MacKenzie Ross
Published: | Updated: 05/09/2019
Edited by: Jay Staniland

It can be alarming to find a lump on your body, especially if you don’t know where it came from. Our top consultant plastic surgeon, Mr Alastair MacKenzie Ross, helps you learn how to identify the different kinds, causes, and options for treating or removing different types of lumps, which include cysts, lipomas and abscesses.


Cysts that are found attached to the skin are semi-solid or liquid-filled lumps, which are fairly common and usually harmless. They can be found anywhere on the body, and can range in size from as small as a pea to large as a grapefruit, though they usually grow slowly.

Cysts usually appear as fairly solid, and will usually have a dark opening at the top, like a spot. They can become tender and red. It can be possible to squeeze them to release the content, but it is not advisable to do on your own, and a medical professional should be consulted.

There are different types of skin cysts, depending on where they appear on the body. Cysts form because cells that are usually shed on the surface of the skin, move deeper into the skin layers, where they multiply. Keratin is secreted into the centre forming a sac.

Anyone can form a cyst, but they more commonly occur during puberty, if you have acne, or if you have damaged your skin.

Can cysts be dangerous? Learn more!

Treating cysts

Many smaller cysts can be left alone, and will eventually go away. Using a warm cloth on the skin can help the healing process. It is not recommended that you try to squeeze the cysts, as it can cause infection, and if the sac is not fully removed, it can go deeper into the skin and form again.

The cyst may need to be surgically removed, where a small cut is made and the contents squeezed out. For larger cysts, or cysts in visible areas, you may wish to make an appointment with a specialist surgeon who can remove the cysts with the minimal of scarring.



Lipomas are another kind of lump that can develop under the skin. They form due to a build-up of a lump of fat that grows under the skin. These lumps are harmless and don’t usually require treatment, although you may want to remove them if they are unsightly.

Lipomas can be similar in size to cysts, ranging from pea-size to larger (up to a few centimetres across), and they grow slowly. They usually appear as soft, without an opening as cysts do.

They can appear anywhere on the body, but are more common on the shoulders, chest, arms, back, bottom and thighs.


Treating lipomas

As with cysts, lipomas may need to be surgically removed. Again, a specialist surgeon will be able to discuss with you the ways to do this.

Other types of skin lumps

There are many different kinds of lumps that can form on the skin. These can be due to infection, such as an abscess, or a swelling due to injury. These will usually be tender to the touch, and appear red or pink. If it is due to an unknown injury, you may also have bruising.

Other types of swellings around the face and neck could be salivary gland stones, thyroid gland or parathyroid gland swelling, or disorders with the parotid gland.

You should always consult a specialist if you find a lump on your skin. Most of them can be managed or removed surgically. It is always important to have them checked to eliminate the possibility of a form of cancer.

By Mr Alastair MacKenzie Ross
Plastic surgery

Mr Alastair MacKenzie Ross is one of London's leading consultant plastic surgeons. He specialises in skin cancer (including melanoma), electrochemotherapy, reconstruction and scars.

Mr Mackenzie Ross qualified in medicine from the University of Cambridge in 1996 and went on to complete his higher surgical training in London. He undertook a hand surgery fellowship in Singapore in 2010 and the following year returned to London to complete a cosmetic reconstructive surgery interface fellowship. In 2012, he was awarded a further prestigious fellowship in melanoma and surgical oncology at the Melanoma Institute Australia. He is a core member of the multi-disciplinary teams for melanoma and non-melanoma cancer at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals, and a founding member of the multi-disciplinary skin cancer team at the Wellington Hospital. Additional to his work within the NHS, Mr MacKenzie Ross sees private patients at the OneWelbeck clinic.

Mr Mackenzie Ross’ many years of clinical experience along with his strong academic background make him a leading expert in the field of plastic surgery. He was formerly the surgical lead for the London Cancer Alliance Skin Cancer Pathway Group and has teaching and training responsibilities in his role of clinical supervisor within Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals. His academic work is widely published in peer-reviewed journals.

In keeping with best practice, skin cancer patients under Mr MacKenzie Ross’ care are managed with the benefit of input from the whole multi-disciplinary team. Electrochemotherapy is at the cutting-edge of cancer management and Mr MacKenzie Ross is one of the first to offer this treatment privately in London.

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