Are Those Blackheads Or Sebaceous Filaments? Here’s How to Tell

Ihave a love/hate relationship with my looped extraction tool. About twice a week, I emerge from the bathroom with angry imprints speckling my nose; visual admission that I’ve been wielding the tool too enthusiastically for my skin’s own good. Until recently, I’d believed I was plagued with a permanent constellation of blackheads across my nose: clogged, oxidized pores ripe for extraction. In actuality, I’ve been dealing with sebaceous filaments. And, as it turns out, sebaceous filaments are totally normal — even helpful for skin’s moisture levels. Below, I asked two experts about the blackhead-like spots — and whether I should cool it with the at-home extractions.   

First — what the heck are sebaceous filaments?

“The skin is covered in fine hairs — think of the dreaded peach fuzz — and each hair follicle contains a sebaceous gland that produces oil,” explains Dr. Amelia K. Dr. Hausauer, Director of Dermatology of AesthetxTM in Silicon Valley. “Sebaceous filaments are made of sebum, with a combination of squalene, wax esters, and triglycerides that keep your skin lubricated and hydrated.”

Adds Suen Lee, Medical Aesthetician at Tribeca MedSpaTM, “Sebaceous filaments allow your own sebum to reach the skin’s surface to naturally moisturize.” And while a built-in skin hydrator sounds wonderful, sebaceous filaments come at a cost: a grey or tan appearance that can make pores appear enlarged.

How do sebaceous filaments differ from blackheads?

It’s not uncommon to mistake sebaceous filaments for blackheads, Hausauer notes. After all, they share a similar darkened-pore appearance. Plus, both tend to dwell in oilier areas, such as the nose or chin.

Nevertheless, sebaceous filaments and blackheads are entirely different entities. Whereas sebaceous filaments are simply sebum lining the follicle in a pore, blackheads are technically a symptom of acne called comedones. “Blackheads occur when the pore fills with oil and an acne-related bacteria called P. acnes,” Hausauer explains. “[The oil and bacteria] slowly turn dark upon air exposure — a process called oxidation.” 

Color is one way to determine whether you’re dealing with sebaceous filaments or blackheads. “Blackhead/open comedones tend to be larger [than sebaceous filaments] with a plug-like shape and darker-colored oxidized tip,” Hausauer says. “Sebaceous filaments, in contrast, have a more yellow-gray or tan tone.”

Ease of extraction is another way to differentiate between the two. Generally, sebaceous filaments will express in a thin stream of beige gunk (what Hausauer calls a “free-flowing strand” or column) when you apply pressure with an extraction tool. Blackheads will not, and should also be easier to extract than sebaceous filaments.

Should I be extracting sebaceous filaments at home?

Admittedly, it’s satisfying to watch gunk wriggle from your pores — but it might not be the healthiest pastime. In fact, Lee calls self-extraction the “worst thing you can do” for sebaceous filaments. Hausauer agrees, noting that using metal tools and/or squeezing could do more harm than good in the long run. “These methods could stretch your pore or cause excessive trauma [to the skin] and scarring. Pores can appear larger as a result, which is even more noticeable [than the sebaceous filament].”

While OK for blackheads, pore strips are another no-go for sebaceous filaments. “Sebaceous filaments are a natural part of the skin’s processing — not an issue of “clogged” pores like blackheads, which extrude as a formed plug — so pulling them out with a strip isn’t the answer,” Hausauer explains.

Even if you do sweep a pore of its sebum-rich filament, the pore will eventually refill, Lee says. Instead, she recommends preventative skincare measures to limit excess sebum production in the first place. Exfoliation — either physical or chemical — can help to keep excess sebum at bay. Both pros suggest incorporating oil-soluble acids, such as salicylic acid or glycolic acid, which can effectively break up lipids.

For a more drastic difference, Hausauer recommends a combination of microneedling or light laser resurfacing.  “Microneedling and the low intensity laser Clear + Brilliant® are two options to noticeably minimize the appearance of sebaceous filaments,” she says. “Both therapies are thought to boost cell renewal cycles and build supporting collagen.”

That said, sebaceous filaments are not curable. “They are genetic and in fact, a natural part of the skin’s processing,” Hausauer reiterates. One thing to look forward to: “They do often decrease with age as your skin gets drier.” Until then, let’s all agree to put our metal extraction tools down — mine included! — and let nature (and a little bit of chemical exfoliation) do its thing.