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Are They Sebaceous Filaments or Blackheads? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Photo by Rochelle Brock/Getty Images

If you’ve ever spent a morning in the mirror going to town on your blackheads, only to realize that they aren’t behaving quite like blackheads, chances are that they’re sebaceous filaments. If you need a visual, a quick TikTok search of the term “sebaceous filaments” will yield loads of satisfying videos of people dealing with these sebum-filled bad boys either the right way or the wrong way (because as you already know, not every online search yields 100 percent fact). So if you’ve tried everything from pore vacuums and pore strips to toners and blackhead-clearing scrubs without seeing results, and if you’ve given those tiny white and gray bumps a squeeze (yes, we’re all tempted) and not much comes out, it's a sure bet that they are sebaceous filaments. 

The good news? We all have sebaceous filaments. Yup, they’re an au naturale side effect of being human. While not everyone is bothered by visible sebaceous filaments, some of us may not love how they look in the mirror. Either way, we’re here for you on your sebaceous filament journey. We talked to board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, about the lowdown on sebaceous filaments and how to live with (or without) them.

About the Expert:

Joshua Zeichner, MD, is a New York City–based dermatologist. He is the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

What Are Sebaceous Filaments?

“Sebaceous filaments are a natural buildup of sebum within your follicles. This leads to prominent pores and the appearance of black dots on the skin. They are most commonly found on the nose, where you have the largest and most active sebaceous glands. Sebaceous filaments occur to some degree in everyone, although they are much more prominent in some people than others,” says Dr. Zeichner. If you’ve got oily skin to begin with, this could be you. Sebaceous filaments, being naturally occurring in the skin, also have nothing to do with trapped dirt, clogged pores, or bacteria. “Unlike true acne, there are no blockages within the pores trapping the sebum. Sebaceous filaments also are not associated with the overgrowth of acne-causing bacteria or inflammation in the skin,” Dr. Zeichner adds.

In fact, sebaceous filaments have a pretty important function. These tube-like structures are responsible for helping bring oil from the sebaceous glands to the skin’s surface, helping to keep it hydrated and protect it from environmental aggressors. So when you squeeze or extract sebaceous filaments, the yellowish stuff that you may or may not see comes from a buildup of oil around your pores. What can make them more or less visible is the amount of sebum that you have built up, which can sometimes be confused with blackheads or whiteheads.

What’s the Difference Between Sebaceous Filaments and Blackheads?

Location, Location, Location

Because of their oil-delivering properties, sebaceous filaments tend to show up on the oiliest parts of your face, like your forehead, nose, and chin. “Blackheads and whiteheads and acne are often confused for sebaceous filaments. However, blackheads and whiteheads can occur all over the face, not just in areas like the nose,” says Dr. Zeichner. Blackheads can also show up in other areas than your T-zone, like your back, chest, and anywhere on your body.

How They Appear

Besides location, an important difference between sebaceous filaments and blackheads is appearance. Sebaceous filaments tend to look flatter and beige, sandy, gray, or sometimes almost translucent up close. Blackheads most commonly appear as pinpoint black dots on the skin and can be raised or textured. 

What They Do

Consider a sebaceous filament the brutally honest BFF that you know you need in life and a blackhead a frenemy. You glow better without the latter. Sebaceous filaments are the visual effects of your body producing excess sebum that is essential to your skin. It’s a never-ending process that your skin needs in order to stay hydrated and protected, and the bumps that you’re seeing are the product of that natural buildup. They don’t contain bacteria either. Blackheads, on the other hand, are caused by a buildup of trapped bacteria, sebum, makeup, skincare products, and debris that clog pores and can be super frustrating to deal with. However, it is possible to remove blackheads and get rid of them for good with a proper skincare routine that unclogs pores.

If you want to get rid of sebaceous filaments for good, it could be tricky since your body is consistently producing sebum. However, the key lies in minimizing their appearance and regulating them through a few simple tweaks to your skincare routine. Read on for eight ways to minimize the appearance of sebaceous filaments on your skin. 

How to Get Rid of Sebaceous Filaments 

1. Double Cleanse at Night

At the start of pretty much any transformative skincare routine, you’ll find cleansing to be a priority. Instead of doing a once-over with your go-to cleanser, try double cleansing with an oil-based cleanser first. Use your oil-based cleanser (we love HUANGJISOO Pure Perfect Cleansing Oil) to help remove makeup and debris. Then, use a pore-clearing face wash like DR. BRANDT SKINCARE pores no more® PORE PURIFYING CLEANSER). This will help clear up gunk and buildup without over-drying skin, helping balance oil production. 

2. Try a Toner

An exfoliating toner can make all the difference when it comes to minimizing sebaceous filaments, not to mention leave you with a gorgeous healthy glow. Look for gently exfoliating ingredients like glycolic acid, which is amazing for clearing up pores because its super small molecules can penetrate pores easily. Apply on clean skin in the morning and at night. 

3. Use Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is your go-to ingredient if you have sebaceous filaments. It’s a beta-hydroxy acid that helps remove excess oil and exfoliate dead skin cells from the skin to keep the pores clear,” says Dr. Zeichner. Try using a salicylic acid treatment one to two times a week to help clear up pores, regulate sebum, and exfoliate your skin. 

4. Smooth on a Mask

If you love a good face mask sesh, this one’s for you. Look for one that has pore-clearing properties and effective pore-clearing ingredients like salicylic acid, lactic acid, or clay. Try the INNISFREE Pore Clearing Clay Mask with Super Volcanic Clusters. It’s made with volcanic clusters, alpha-hydroxy acids, and finely ground powders to help clear up pores and smooth skin without causing irritation.

5. Try a Retinol

It's no secret that retinol is the G.O.A.T. when it comes to anti-aging. It works wonders transforming skin and improving texture, and it turns out that it's also a go-to for targeting sebaceous filaments, thanks to its ability to improve cell turnover (and, as a result, preventing buildup and clogged pores). If you’re new to retinol, ease into it by introducing a retinol serum to your nighttime skincare routine one to two times a week and working up to daily. We’re fans of SUNDAY RILEY A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum because it helps soothe skin with ginger, white honey, and encapsulated CoQ10. 

6. Switch Out Your SPF

Never skip SPF—it's the golden skincare rule. So if you’re slathering on sunscreen daily, we’re proud of you. While we consistently ship wearing SPF, it’s no secret that finding the perfect non-pore-clogging sunscreen for your face can be super tricky. Enter: SUPERGOOP! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40. Tried and tested by Ipsters of all skin tones and skin types, this baby passes the test. It’s light as air, doesn’t clog pores, won’t leave behind a white cast, and doubles as a super glow-enhancing primer. It’s pretty much an all-around win.

7. Hydrate Your Skin Inside and Out

It may seem counterintuitive to add moisture to excess oil, but the truth is that maintaining your skin’s hydration is the key to keeping oil production in check. But it’s easier than it may seem to become dehydrated, so be sure to keep tabs on your water intake throughout the day, every day. You’ll also want to moisturize your skin morning and night to keep oil production and hydration levels balanced. Look for a lightweight formula (like the BELIF Aqua Bomb) that will help balance skin without clogging pores.

8. Try Gentle (!!!) Extraction

While squeezing sebaceous filaments and blackheads may be oh-so tempting, extractions should always be left in the hands of a pro. If you’re feeling the urge to extract them on your own, see your aesthetician for a clarifying facial. They’ll be able to help remove them gently or show you how to safely do it on your own. 

Do you want to try out these skin techniques (and more!) at home? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started with your own IPSY beauty subscription. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram @IPSY.

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About the author
Runa Rhattacharya
Runa Bhattacharya
Runa is an NYC-based writer and Registered Nurse with over 8 years of experience covering beauty and wellness. She’s worked for publications like SELF, Cosmopolitan, and more. She’s passionate about beauty, science, and two careers that she loves!
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Article Last Updated January 26, 2023 12:00 AM