(Skin)

What Your Dermatologist Wishes You Knew About Sebaceous Filaments

Those spots on your nose probably aren’t blackheads.

Courtesy of Getty/The Good Brigade

Before you start squeezing, take a second to really look at your skin. That ever-present constellation of blackheads dotted across your nose, chin, forehead, or cheeks may not be blackheads at all. More than likely, 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.

“Although sebaceous filaments may look a lot like blackheads, they are usually tanner or grayer in color, 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.

Sebaceous Filaments: What Are They?

“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 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.

Sebaceous Filaments: Are They 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 a sebaceous filament oxidize when they hit the air, making them appear dark in color.

Sebaceous Filaments: Should I Squeeze Them?

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 debris, or good, old-fashioned pore strips.

Sebaceous Filaments: 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 sebaceous filaments permanently,” says Dr. Hartman. “There are certain anatomical structures in the skin that just kind of are what they are.” All hope is not lost if these tiny dots are still stressing you out. Minimize their appearance at home by incorporating products containing retinol, alpha hydroxy acids, salicylic acid, sulfur, oil-absorbing clay, or vitamin E into your routine. Be wary of pore-clogging ingredients such as coconut oil, shea butter, and petroleum, adds Dr. Hartman.

Sebaceous Filaments: Will “Skin Gritting” Remove Them?

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-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 skin laxity and could make pores look bigger over time, adds Dr. Patel.

Sebaceous Filaments: How Can I Treat Them?

Make a date with your dermatologist, who can prescribe a topical retinoid like Altreno or Arazlo, which help 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 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. While the only guaranteed solution for sebaceous filaments may be acceptance, TZR asked the derms for products that can temporarily clear things up.

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