Sebum Plugs: What Are They, Why Do They Happen & How To Get Rid Of Them For Good
Ever gaze in the mirror to find a cluster of congested pores on your chin or in the crevices of your nose? They might be darker in color, but they're not your run-of-the-mill blackheads. That buildup you may be facing might actually be sebum plugs (also characterized as sebaceous plugs or sebaceous hyperplasia), which require a slightly different plan of action. But don't fret; they're not so difficult to treat. Here, everything you need to know about sebum plugs, plus the best ways to get rid of them for good.
What are sebum plugs, and why do they happen?
Everywhere on our body, our pores produce sebum, that yellow oil necessary for keeping our skin and hair moisturized. But it's when there's too much sebum that it becomes a problem. When you have an excess of sebum mixed with dead skin cells and bacteria, that buildup can block the oil from reaching the surface of your skin. Essentially, it's all in the name: Sebum plugs occur when sebum is quite literally plugging your sebaceous glands (a fancy term for pores).
While they're most common on the nose, chin, and forehead, says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., sebum plugs can be found anywhere on the body that has sebaceous glands (i.e., everywhere except the palms of your hands and soles of your feet). Your back, chest, and scalp are also common hotbeds for sebum plugs, but there are also other places (albeit, unlikely) they can pop up as well.
These oily bumps have a multitude of names with slightly different profiles. For example, board-certified dermatologist Ellen Marmur, M.D., might diagnose sebaceous hyperplasia, which is "a pink doughnut-looking bump, usually multiple, that often grows after the age of 25 on the oily areas of the forehead, nose, and cheeks," she tells mbg. While it also stems from sebum blocking the hair follicle, it's a little more specific than your average sebum plug; so don't be alarmed if your diagnosis has a more technical name—it may have a slightly different makeup, but the root of the issue is that excess oil trapped within your pores.
Sebum plugs versus blackheads.
Simply put, sebum plugs are the foundation for blackheads and whiteheads. Meaning, blackheads and whiteheads are later iterations of sebum plugs once they become inflamed. "A blackhead or whitehead is a form of acne," says board-certified dermatologist Amy Ross, M.D. "It indicates the oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria are blocking the pore and can lead to more inflammation." The difference between them is blackheads are considered "open" pores (and due to the oxidation of the plug, King notes, they turn darker), while sebum plugs may have no color at all.
So while you may notice a blackhead in the mirror, the root of the problem is a sebum plug, which is what you'll want to treat to keep those blackheads (and whiteheads, for that matter) at bay. Consider them the prerequisite for zits.
How to treat sebum plugs—the do's and don'ts.
Annoying, yes, but sebum plugs are not cause for alarm. You can get rid of them fairly easily, and as long as you're gentle, they'll be gone without a trace (that is, scarring or discoloration). That said, you want to take extra care to treat these pesky plugs:
First things first: Know your topicals—specifically, your chemical exfoliants. According to Ross, exfoliating regularly is perhaps the best way to treat sebum plugs and keep them from popping up. Since sebum plugs are caused by oil, your best bet will be BHAs. Because BHAs are oil-soluble (unlike AHAs, which are hydrophilic or water-loving), they can penetrate into the pore and unclog the plug at its source. These hydroxy acids, a common one is salicylic acid, work to dissolve dead skin cells by breaking apart their lipid cell membrane and therefore promote cell turnover.
"BHAs are able to work on the surface of the skin as well as inside the pore," says King. "Salicylic acid is an excellent comedolytic, or pore-clearing, ingredient because it exfoliates the stratum corner (the surface of the skin) and penetrates into pores to remove sebum."
And if you're facing some sebum plugs on your scalp, a chemical scalp scrub may help give your hair follicles a necessary tune-up.
Don't: Squeeze them.
You might see a gnarly-looking plug in the mirror, your fingers practically itching to pop and squeeze the blemish—don't. "Squeezing can traumatize the skin, introduce bacteria, and damage the pore, which can spread debris and bacteria deeper into the tissue," King notes.
Ross agrees: "Squeezing risks the sebum and dead skin cells getting outside of the follicular unit into other layers of the skin and causing inflammation, which can ultimately lead to scarring." In other words, don't take matters into your own hands—let your skin care, or a licensed esthetician, do the work.
Do: Apply topical retinoids.
Topical retinoids are another tried-and-true remedy for treating sebum plugs. "They increase the turnover of skin cells and reduce the tendency of cells and keratin debris to clump together and clog up pores," King explains. That's what makes them great for inflammatory and comedonal (aka, pore-clogging) acne.
Don't: Use pore strips.
You may reach for a trusty pore strip for the blackheads dusting your nose, but King advises to proceed with caution there as well. "Pore strips can temporarily remove top layers of dead skin cells, but they won't do anything to prevent the buildup of blackheads."
So, if you want to stop the sebum plug at the source, the best route is to go with the aforementioned remedies. Plus, pore strips can cause irritation if you're not careful: "The adhesive can traumatize the skin, so be sure to use them carefully and follow the instructions," King says.
The bottom line.
Sebum plugs are actually quite common; while you might characterize them generally as blackheads, it's important to understand their origin story so you can treat them correctly. While removing blackheads can rid that superficial layer of buildup, you'll want to target the plug at the source for the best results. All in all, they're not so scary; the core of the issue is essentially clogged pores—a skin care woe that's unfortunately all too familiar.
Heal Your Skin.
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Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness 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 Wyld Skincare. 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 New York City.