Sebaceous Filaments: What Are These Blackhead Look-Alikes + 5 Ways To Get Rid Of Them
Ever peered into the mirror to find a cluster of dark dots on your nose? They may look like blackheads; they may feel like blackheads; they may even pop up where pesky blackheads tend to rear their oxidized heads. But here's the thing: Those dots are something else entirely. In fact, they're not even a type of acne at all.
What are these specks we speak of? It turns out, you may be dealing with sebaceous filaments. But don't become too concerned, because everybody has them—some are just more noticeable than others.
Below, derms explain everything you need to know about the blackhead look-alikes.
What are sebaceous filaments?
"Sebaceous filaments are naturally occurring tiny collections of sebum that are part of the pore structure," says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D. "They line the inside of the pores and assist in the flow of sebum along the lining into the skin to help moisturize it." They're made up of triglycerides, wax esters, and squalene, King adds—all of which are necessary for a healthy glow.
For the most part, sebaceous filaments live invisible lives, helping to flow sebum beneath the skin's surface. It's when you do notice some specks (usually a yellowish, off-white, or even gray color) that it becomes an issue: Ever pull your skin taut to find small, white pinpoints dotting the area? This means your pores have clogged up with too much sebum, dead skin, and bacteria. "These are annoying cosmetically," says board-certified dermatologist Jeanine Downie, M.D., as you can't really feel them beneath your fingers.
They're typically most visible along your T-zone, Downie mentions, as that's where people tend to accrue the most oil. Sometimes vellus hairs can even become trapped within the pore, resulting in a condition called trichostasis spinulosa. (For what it's worth: Both trichostasis spinulosa and sebaceous filaments are often confused for blackheads.)
What causes them?
As we said, sebaceous filaments are naturally occurring in your pores, and they only become an issue once they're visible to the naked eye. However, some people are more prone to clogged filaments than others. According to Downie, family history, smoking, hormonal fluctuations, and an oily skin type are some of the main culprits.
Sebaceous filaments vs. blackheads
"They are totally different but can look similar," says Downie, especially if your sebaceous filaments look a bit dark in color. However, if you've ever tried to treat a sebaceous filament the same as a blackhead, you were likely met with disappointment (and perhaps some irritation).
That's because sebaceous filaments are more like a prerequisite to blackheads—they aren't raised, which makes them way more difficult to express (not that you should ever extract them yourself, but sometimes finicky fingers do get the best of us).
When the excess sebum mixes with dead skin and bacteria, that's when the filaments can become inflamed—and that's where blackheads come into play. Once those sebaceous filaments build up and up, they can quickly turn into acne. Then once it oxidizes, it'll turn dark in color, and—poof!—you've just reached blackhead status.
How to treat them
Full disclosure: Sebaceous filaments are simply part of your pore structure. You can't get rid of them (and, trust, you don't want to!). However, you can decrease their appearance once they become noticeable. Here's what the derms recommend:
Introduce salicylic acid
This BHA penetrates deep into the pore to unclog grime, which is exactly what you're hoping for, here. Whether you use a cleanser, treatment serum, or mask (Downie loves to slather on an exfoliating mask once a week for about 10 minutes), make sure you've got a regular exfoliation regimen in your repertoire.
Try oil cleansing
If you've never tried cleansing with oil before, consider this a sign to dabble in the regimen. Oil dissolves oil, so an oil cleanser can actually eliminate excess sebum, as well as daily dirt and grime (aka, the exact recipe for sebaceous filaments). "I especially like oil cleansers for oily, congested skin," says Britta Plug, holistic esthetician and mbg Collective member. (Find our favorite cleansing oils for every skin type here.)
Stick to lightweight moisturizers
If your skin falls on the oily side, you might want to tweak your skin care routine and skip the whip-thick formulas for the time being; if your pores are overproducing sebum, it's a sure sign to cool it on the heavy creams. Or, if you face combination skin, perhaps slather on a lightweight gel cream on oilier areas and apply your buttery confection on drier portions.
Perhaps see a professional for extractions
Don't (we repeat: don't!) try to extract sebaceous filaments yourself. You'll only spread the debris and cause more inflammation, and plus, these dots are so tiny that even professionals typically need a special extractor tool to pull out the gunk. "[Sebaceous filaments] usually take the form of a thin, off-white strand when expressed from the skin," says King. Satisfying, yes, but you'll want to prioritize the above methods to prevent the issue rather than skipping off to the derm every time you notice a sebaceous filament settling in.
And for what it's worth, you might want to steer clear of at-home extraction tools as well. These high-tech machines sure are fancy, but they can be way too harsh on delicate facial skin and cause irritation or broken capillaries, sometimes even scarring.
Everybody has sebaceous filaments naturally in their skin—it's when the pores become clogged with too much sebum that these filaments become noticeable. They may be difficult to get rid of, but it's not an impossible feat. And while they may look like blackheads upon first glance (some are even darker in color), you shouldn't treat them the same as those comedones.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and more. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.