Commonly confused with blackheads (because they really do look quite similar) sebaceous filaments are completely normal and nothing to be concerned about. They're also very different than blackheads—and are actually there to help your skin rather than to clog it. Beneficial or not, there's no harm in having sebaceous filaments or in trying to diminish their appearance, as is the case with blackheads. Ahead, two dermatologists share the differences between sebaceous filaments vs blackheads, how to identify what you have, and how to treat them.
Meet the Expert
What Are Sebaceous Filaments?
Also known as "sebum plugs" sebaceous filaments may look a lot like blackheads but are quite different in functionality and cause.
Dr. Zeichner explains that while they often give the appearance of a black dot on your skin, sebaceous filaments are really just, "tiny collections of oil and dead cells that build up within your pores." They are caused by an overactivity of your sebaceous glands (teeny, tiny glands that are found throughout the skin and work to secrete sebum into hair follicles that work to lubricate and moisturize your skin and hair) and fill the pore to its surface with helpful secretions of sebum.
What Do Sebaceous Filaments Look Like?
Similar to blackheads, whiteheads, and acne, Zeichner says that sebaceous filaments are most commonly found in the more oily areas of the face — especially. your T-zone—and are most commonly found on the skin around your nose.They appear as tiny black or dark grey dots or specks on the surface of your pores, but are more often than not smaller in size than a typical, true blackhead.
Sebaceous Filaments vs. Blackheads
For Dr. Shari Marchbein, a New York board-certified dermatologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, having confusion between sebaceous filaments and blackheads is quite common.
"Many people, especially younger women, come into my office with complaints of blackheads but then point to normal pores on their cheeks or nose," she says, pointing out that especially when pores are larger, both blackheads or sebaceous filaments may be more visible, heightening a patient's concern.
She explains that pores (the visible opening of the hair follicle and connection to the oil glands) can, "look larger as the collagen around them weakens, whether from age, sun exposure, or genetic predisposition, and if they fill with dirt, oil, and bacteria on the skin, they can appear clogged."
But, unlike true blackheads, sebaceous filaments are not clogged pores, and are not problematic at all. Nor are they in the same family as acne or breakouts. Instead, they are just simply "normal" pores that have filled up to the surface with sebaceous filament, which Marchbein describes as a being a "thin, yellowish material."
Blackheads, on the other hand, "are technically a form of acne known as an open comedone, which is often the first sign that someone has acne." Marchbein explains that blackheads are typically, "characterized by a dilated or widened opening of a hair follicle caused by a buildup of sebum, Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes) bacteria (the primary bacteria responsible for causing acne) and inflammation."
How to Treat Sebaceous Filaments vs Blackheads
Blackheads: Unlike sebaceous filaments, true blackheads are, according to Marchbein, best treated, "by a dermatologist with prescription retinoids such as tretinoin, Retin A micro or Tazorac. As far as over the counter options go, Marchbein suggests that "Differin 0.1% can be effective."
Sebaceous Filaments: As for sebaceous filaments, there's no true mandated call to action, because they aren't really problematic from a dermatology standpoint. They're more of just a nuisance cosmetically—if they're even noticed at all. But if you'd rather not have them hanging around, Dr. Marchbein says that a good first place to start is with a pore strip. She adds, "Although it is extremely satisfying to see the sebaceous filament of oil and bacteria on the nose strip, there is no permanent change or improvements to the skin achieved with such a strip." It's more of a quick-fix.
Instead, she suggests better options to help improving overall pore appearance and health that include prescription retinoids, or over the counter salicylic acid, and glycolic acid—whether in a scrub, pad or gel.
Zeichner agrees, explaining that, "Physical exfoliators (like textured scrubs or pads) manually remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin to help clear the pores. Chemical exfoliators use hydroxy acids to dissolve connections between dead cells on the surface of the skin and remove excess oil."
If you're convinced that what you're seeing on your skin are sebaceous filaments (rather than blackheads), check out our complete treatment guide below.
While blackheads are a form of congestion typically seen on the nose and forehead, sebaceous filaments are actually part of your skin—they're tube-like structures that help facilitate oil secretion from the sebaceous glands to your skin. When sebaceous filaments become clogged with oil and dirt, they can closely resemble blackheads. According to the dermatologists we interviewed, blackheads are best treated in-office, and while you can't actually get rid of sebaceous filaments (since they're part of your skin and everyone has them), you can reduce their appearance temporarily with chemical exfoliants like salicylic acid and physical exfoliators (sparingly).
Flament F, Francois G, Qiu H, et al. Facial skin pores: a multiethnic study. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015;8:85-93. doi:10.2147/CCID.S74401