Skincare

Everything You Need to Know About Sebaceous Cysts, Including Treatment and Removal

woman with sebaceous cyst

In an industry that truly emphasizes all things beauty, it’s pretty ironic how often less-than-glamorous, arguably “gross” topics come up. Case in point: the treatment and removal of sebaceous cysts, those benign but unsightly and sometimes painful bumps filled with thick, yellowish sebum. For the full rundown on what sebaceous cysts are, why they develop, and the best sebaceous cyst treatment and removal methods, we spoke to NYC-based board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD. Keep reading to discover her tips.

What is a sebaceous cyst?

Sebaceous cysts are non-cancerous growths that typically develop on the face, neck, and back. They’re round in shape and start small — approximately the size of a pea. “Over time, they can grow to the size of a golf ball or larger,” explains Dr. Jaliman. “They are usually soft to the touch due to what they are filled with: a yellowish, cheesy substance that smells pretty foul.”

Sebaceous cysts develop within sebaceous glands, which are responsible for producing oil. When a gland becomes damaged or clogged, there’s a backup of oil and keratin that causes the cyst to develop. In addition to trauma, genetics can play a role in who is most likely to experience sebaceous cysts.

Can you squeeze a sebaceous cyst?

It might be tempting to start picking at your cyst, but Dr. Jaliman pleads that you do not. “Sebaceous cysts are internal, and one should never attempt to squeeze it,” she warns. “Doing so actually increases the risk of developing an infection.” 

In addition to potentially causing an infection and causing you a lot of unnecessary pain, squeezing a sebaceous cyst is a futile effort. It’s not akin to a whitehead or blackhead that can be coaxed out gently, nor is it like a filled pimple waiting to burst. Cysts can’t be removed by your fingers alone. If you’re prone to popping your own pimples, you might see a cyst as a unique challenge. But keep in mind that even if you do manage to drain it, it’s likely that you won’t be able to remove it in its entirety, which means you’ll need dermatological intervention eventually anyway.

OK, so if I can’t pop it myself, how do I treat and remove a sebaceous cyst?

Because sebaceous cysts are deeper under the skin, a topical treatment won’t do much. Luckily, if you’re dealing with a sebaceous cyst, the good news is that it can possibly go away on its own without treatment or removal. However, Dr. Jaliman notes that it’s entirely possible for a sebaceous cyst to flatten, only to reemerge if there’s still a blockage in the gland. It’s also possible that the cyst will stubbornly hang out like an unwelcomed guest, or worse, continue to get bigger.

“My best advice is to have a physician check it out for a proper diagnosis, especially if you’re experiencing any pain or discomfort, if you think the cyst could be infected, or if it’s recurring,” Dr. Jaliman advises. She adds that if a sebaceous cyst is simply bothering you aesthetically, that’s also a fine reason to enlist the help of a medical professional, who will examine the cyst and potentially lance it.

“A physician can safely puncture the sebaceous cyst and drain the entire inside,” explains Dr. Jaliman. “They can also surgically remove the cyst, which means it will likely not return. In this case, the entire wall that encapsulates the cyst is removed.” Your provider will determine the best course of action for you — just remember, that course of action will never include you popping your own cyst. Hands off!

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