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Understanding Sebaceous Filaments: Dermatologist Insights

Close up of a woman squeezing the skin on the side of her nose trying to remove blackheads but these are most likely sebaceous filaments.

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Those spots on your nose probably aren’t blackheads.

By Amber Kallor

Before you start squeezing, take a second to really look at your skin’s surface. That ever-present constellation of blackheads dotted across your nose, chin, forehead, or cheeks may not be blackheads or clogged pores at all. More than likely, the more noticeable sebaceous filaments are what you see staring back at you in the magnifying mirror — and your dermatologist desperately wants you to stop freaking out over them.

Although it may seem that any dark spots in your pores are a menace to be dealt with, it’s important to correctly identify them before you start messing with your face. The first order of business: Stop scrutinizing your skin at close range.

Quick Guide to Understanding Sebaceous Filaments and Oily Skin

This guide will help you understand the nature of sebaceous filaments, how to manage oily skin, and the best practices for maintaining a healthy complexion. Here’s a quick overview of the main points covered in this article:

What Are Sebaceous Filaments?

  • Tube-like structures in pores that guide oil to the skin’s surface.
  • Differences between sebaceous filaments and blackheads.

Causes and Characteristics

  • Role of sebaceous glands in sebum production.
  • How oily skin and excess sebum production make sebaceous filaments more noticeable.

Management and Treatment

  • Best practices for managing sebaceous filaments.
  • Importance of not squeezing sebaceous filaments.
  • Effective skincare products containing retinol, salicylic acid, and alpha hydroxy acids.

Professional Help

  • Benefits of consulting with dermatologists.
  • In-office treatments and personalized skincare routines.
  • How Skin Wellness Dermatology can help you achieve your skincare goals.

For detailed information on each of these points and to learn how to keep your skin healthy and clear, read on.

What Are Sebaceous Filaments?

“Sebaceous filaments are tube-like structures in the walls of your pores,” says Dr. Engelman. “You might recognize them as tiny, dark dots on your face.” Despite what Reddit and TikTok users may have you thinking, you don’t have to go to great lengths to evict them from your face.

“They are part of the normal anatomy of our skin,” adds Dr. Hartman. “They help guide the excess oil and debris that can accumulate inside of a pore or hair follicle out.” Sebaceous filaments tend to be most prominent on the nose and chin, but can occur anywhere there are oil glands.

Are Oily Skin or Dead Skin Cells To Blame?

“Although sebaceous filaments may look a lot like blackheads, they are usually tanner or grayer in color unlike blackheads, and serve an important purpose — meaning you should leave them alone!” says Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Sebaceous filaments are a natural part of your skin and provide an important service by moving oil from the sebaceous glands to the surface, helping your skin to stay hydrated and protect itself from damage.”

If you still can’t stop obsessing over these naturally occurring structures, there are ways to minimize their appearance — just don’t expect permanent results. “You might be getting rid of a lot of the stuff that the filament is holding, but you’re not going to make it go away forever,” explains Dr. Corey L. Hartman, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama.

The good news? There are in-office treatments and over-the-counter products that work wonders when it comes to creating the clear complexion you crave. Here, TZR asked top dermatologists to answer all of your burning questions surrounding sebaceous filaments.

Are Sebaceous Filaments Different From Blackheads?

You bet. “A pimple is caused by bacteria or fungus, and is usually a fleshy bump that can have a white or black top, hence the term whitehead or blackhead,” explains Dr. Purvisha Patel, a board-certified dermatologist based in Memphis, Tennessee, and founder of Visha Skincare.

“A sebaceous filament is just oil and keratin — no bacteria. They are not harmful.” Similar to a blackhead, however, the contents of large pores in a sebaceous filament oxidize when they hit the air, making them appear dark in color.

Should I Squeeze Sebaceous Filaments?

As satisfying as it may be to watch these threadlike substances slip out of your pores, resist the urge to pick and prod. “Using too much pressure can traumatize the outer skin layer, leading to breakages, scabs, or even infections,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Keep fingers off and leave aggressive tools, such as comedone extractors, to the pros.

“I know it seems really easy, but you need an experienced hand when you start dealing with that kind of stuff,” explains Dr. Hartman, who says redness, inflammation, hyperpigmentation, and scarring can result when you attempt to extract sebaceous filaments yourself. Stick to more foolproof options, like the Dermaflash Dermapore that uses ultrasonic vibrations to gently dislodge sebum and debris, or good, old-fashioned pore strips.

Sebaceous Filament Removal: Can I Get Rid Of Them?

The short answer: no — and nor should you want to since they serve an important function when it comes to maintaining healthy skin. Even if you do manage to successfully express the contents of a sebaceous filament, it’s going to fill up again in about a month. “Just like pore size, you’re not going to affect the appearance of sebaceous filaments permanently,” says Dr. Hartman. “There are certain anatomical structures in the skin that just kind of are what they are.”

Although you can’t get rid of sebaceous filaments, all hope is not lost if these tiny dots are still stressing you out. Minimize their appearance at home by incorporating skincare products into your routine that contain the following:

  • retinol
  • alpha hydroxy acids
  • salicylic acid
  • sulfur
  • oil-absorbing clay
  • vitamin E

Be wary of pore-clogging ingredients such as coconut oil, shea butter, tea tree oil, and petroleum, adds Dr. Hartman.

Will “Skin Gritting” or Salicylic Acid Remove Sebaceous Filaments?

A quick search of “sebaceous filaments” on TikTok may lead you to a technique many on the platform have dubbed “skin gritting.” This multi-step process typically involves softening skin with an oil cleanser, exfoliating with an acid, masking with a clay essential oil-based product, and massaging your face for as long as 15 minutes with the oil cleanser to remove congestion (i.e., grits).

“While combining an exfoliating acid, a purifying mask, and an oil will give you a deeper clean by pulling out pore-clogging material, much of the blackheads and gunk that you feel are likely excess product that you just applied,” explains Dr. Engelman, who warns that skin gritting isn’t exactly the “pore-cleansing miracle” it’s cracked up to be. This time-consuming practice can also contribute to the skin’s appearance of laxity and could make pores look bigger over time, adds Dr. Patel.

Learn How to Get Rid of Sebaceous Filaments

Make a date with your dermatologist, who can prescribe a topical retinoid like Altreno or Arazlo, which helps speed up cell turnover with minimal irritation. (For similar results without an rX, Dr. Hartman recommends La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel .1% Topical Retinoid For Acne.) Your doctor may also suggest an in-office treatment, such as a medical-grade peel or a HydraFacial, which uses gentle suction to move dead cells and vacuum out pores.

There are also plenty of over-the-counter options that are equally as effective at combating visible sebaceous filaments. The key rule to remember, says Dr. Zeichner: “More is not better when it comes to treating sebaceous filaments.” Introduce new products to your routine slowly to avoid stripping skin and making matters worse.

Take Control of Your Skincare: Schedule an Appointment Today

Achieving healthy, clear skin involves understanding the role of sebaceous filaments, managing oily skin, and using the right products. If you have concerns about skin damage, sebaceous filaments, oily skin, or any other skin issues, don’t hesitate to reach out to Skin Wellness Dermatology. Our experts are here to help you create a personalized skincare routine that keeps your skin healthy and vibrant.

Contact us today to schedule an appointment and take the first step towards achieving your best skin.

FAQs About Sebaceous Filaments and Oily Skin

Understanding sebaceous filaments and their impact on oily skin can help you better manage your skincare routine. Below are some frequently asked questions to clarify what sebaceous filaments are, how they differ from blackheads, and the best practices for minimizing their appearance without damaging your skin.

What are sebaceous filaments, and how do they differ from blackheads?

Sebaceous filaments are tube-like structures in your pores that guide oil to the skin’s surface, helping keep your skin moist and healthy. Unlike blackheads, they don’t contain bacteria and aren’t harmful.

Can I squeeze sebaceous filaments to remove them?

It’s best not to squeeze sebaceous filaments as it can damage your skin and lead to breakages, scabs, or infections. Instead, use gentle skincare products or consult a dermatologist.

How can I minimize the appearance of sebaceous filaments?

Use skincare products containing retinol, salicylic acid, or alpha hydroxy acids to help reduce their visibility. Be cautious of pore-clogging ingredients like coconut oil and shea butter.

Is oily skin responsible for more noticeable sebaceous filaments?

Yes, excess sebum production can make sebaceous filaments more prominent. Regularly using products with salicylic acid or beta hydroxy acid can help manage oil production and keep pores clear.