Sebaceous Filaments vs. Blackheads: What's the Difference?
Take a look at your nose. You may notice little, pin-like dots in a pale grey or flesh-colored tone. It’s the pore-clogging gunk inside blackheads, right? Well, not quite. They’re actually naturally-occurring sebaceous filaments, and everyone has them. If this is news to you, chances are you’re feeling deceived, confused, and like your entire livelihood of thinking your nose was laden in pesky blackheads was a lie. Hang tight, there’s more shocking news where that came from. But before we get into that, let’s square away the differences between sebaceous filaments and blackheads.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SEBACEOUS FILAMENTS AND BLACKHEADS?
For a little more insight on sebaceous filaments, we chatted with plastic surgeon, SkinCeuticals ambassador, and Skincare.com consultant Dr. Peter Schmid. “Sebaceous filaments arise from skin hair follicles lined by sebaceous oil glands located in the regions of the central face and nose presenting in post-puberty ages,” he said. “When squeezed and extracted from the pores, the content is yellowish-white cylindric tubules consisting of a collection of dead cells, bacteria, wax esters, and lipids (oil).” If you have enlarged pores or an oily complexion (from excess sebum production due to hormones or genetics, for instance), sebaceous filaments may be more noticeable. “The condition is actually not acne, but the normal buildup of porous debris around a hair in its follicle,” Dr. Schmid says. “The collections commonly appear tan or light grey or present as a hair-like strand.”
Blackheads, on the other hand, are the result of a clogged pore that may include dead skin cells, dirt, impurities, cosmetics build-up, and sebum. “Blackheads are the buildup and clogging of a pore with a potpourri of oxidized melanin, dead skin cells, dirt, debris, makeup, impurities, bacteria and sebum,” Dr. Schmid says. “These appear across the surface of the skin as slightly elevated or depressed stippled black dilated pores.” The characteristic “black” color is due to oxidation of the contents. That’s right, blackheads turn their characteristic black shade when they oxidize as a result of being exposed to air. Blackheads may have a slightly raised border, and can accompany a whitehead. As mentioned though, sebaceous filaments have nothing to do with acne.
HOW CAN I GET RID OF SEBACEOUS FILAMENTS?
Unfortunately, our experts have told us there’s nothing you can do to get rid of sebaceous filaments. But the truth is, you shouldn't even want to. The sebum on the surface of our skin helps keep our skin moisturized and protected against bad bacteria. “Sebaceous filaments are a normal skin condition and actually help to maintain the skin’s natural moisture levels,” says Dr. Schmid. If you are unhappy about the appearance of sebaceous filaments or want to avoid them turning into blackheads, you can start by cleansing and exfoliating regularly, using pore strips, and/or applying a clay mask to help keep pores free of excess oil and debris. We're listing the best clay masks that won't dry out your skin here.
Dr. Schmid also has a few tips of his own for addressing sebaceous filaments: “To prevent and alleviate surface buildup, a daily cleansing, correcting and protecting regimen is key,” he says. “I recommend products with salicylic acid for clarifying the skin and removing excess oil and bacteria, including SkinCeuticals LHA Cleansing Gel and SkinCeuticals Clarifying Exfoliating Cleanser.” Dr. Schmid also recommends a vitamin C product and an acne spot treatment. “And finally, everyone should use a quality sunscreen 365 days per year,” he says.
HOW CAN I GET RID OF BLACKHEADS?
If you're hoping to remove blackheads, you'll actually follow a similar routine. “At home, I recommend daily exfoliation with a good cleanser specifically formulated for acne-prone skin,” says dermatologist, and Skincare.com consultant, Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali. “[Cleanse with] a sonic facial cleansing brush two to three times a week to supplement.” As Dr. Bhanusali mentioned, to rid your skin of blackheads, your skin care focus should be on cleansing and exfoliating to help decongest your pores and to help them from becoming clogged in the first place.
Salicylic acid is great for blackheads. It keeps inflammation at bay, forces out all the debris clogging the pores, and is also great for softening the skin and giving you that tight, firm feeling after cleansing.
Another option to consider is incorporating salicylic acid into your routine. “Salicylic acid is great for blackheads,” Dr. Bhanusali says. “It keeps inflammation at bay, forces out all the debris clogging the pores, and is also great for softening the skin and giving you that tight, firm feeling after cleansing.” Just make sure not to overdo it, since the ingredient is notoriously drying. If topical options don’t work, you can pay a visit to the dermatologist who can gently extract the blackheads for you using sterile tools. Pore strips—when used in moderation—can also be a great tool for targeting your blackheads.
Regardless of whether you’re dealing with blackheads or sebaceous filaments, resist the urge to pop or pick at your skin. This can irritate the area and result in scarring, as well as add more dirt and bacteria from your fingers into your pores, leaving you—and your skin—worse off. Also, practice a little patience. Getting rid of your blackheads may not happen overnight and that's perfectly ok. With time, all of your skin care efforts should prove to be worth it.