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How To Tell If You Have Sebaceous Filaments + Treat Them

by Brett Aaron Marlow, he/him

It's a blackhead. It's a whitehead. It's a sebaceous filament? Turns out, those clusters of congestion your pointer fingers have been going hard on without much success of extraction may not be congestion at all but a buildup of oil where you have more active sebaceous glands. 

Don’t worry, these blackheads impersonators—appearing predominantly on your nose, across your cheeks, and T-zone—aren’t harmful; they’re actually a part of our skin’s regular oil-production and moisturizing processes. Here’s how to get ahead of them, using products likely already in your current lineup.

"Sebaceous filaments are a natural structure of your pore lining. They can appear as a flat yellowish or gray blackhead-like dot on skin’s surface when built-up sebum has collected with dead skin cells inside the pore," says Laura Cline, Director of Education at Youth To The People. If you have combination, oily, or acne-prone skin, you're likely to have more sebaceous glands and more visible filaments as a result.

Unlike whiteheads, blackheads, or acne, sebaceous filaments never come to a head, rarely oxidize, harden or form comedones, nor do they contain bacteria. Their main job is to control the flow of sebum from your sebaceous glands to the skin’s surface, moisturizing the skin and protecting it against environmental aggressors, explains Cline.

You could think of sebaceous glands like spotting a boom mic in a scene of your favorite TV show. Your skin is accidentally giving a peek behind the curtain of its natural oil-production process, revealing where excess sebum has accumulated in what closely resembles a clogged pore or blackhead. While it may be tempting to squeeze, don't. The instant gratification can lead to scarring and hyperpigmentation, warns Dr. Rina Allawh, a board-certified dermatologist based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. It can also be greatly unsatisfying.

"In contrast to blackheads, if you squeeze sebaceous filaments there is rarely any debris extruded," adds Dr. Allawh.

With the reassurance that your blackhead-busting products haven't betrayed you, we bet you want to know how you treat them—or at least minimize their appearance. According to the experts, these are the best ways. 

Properly Cleansing, Day And Night 

First things first: invest in a good deep-pore cleaning cleanser (like Youth To The People's Superfood Cleanser) that won't strip skin of its natural oils as it thoroughly clears dirt and debris. Removing too much of your skin's natural oils can signal the skin to overcompensate, leading to the development of even more sebaceous filaments. If removing congestion is a primary skin goal, adding an oil cleanser into the mix could help clear things up faster. "Oil attracts oil," says Cline. "I clean my oil paint brushes with vegetable oil because it’s so good at breaking down other oils." 

Utilize Active Ingredients Like BHA, AHAs, and Retinoids 

Incorporating a balanced blend of oil-dissolving ingredients into your regimen can also help. Reach for clarifying and exfoliating treatments with salicylic acid (such as Youth To The People’s Superclay Purify + Clear Power Mask), lactic acid (found in the Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliation Power Toner), and even retinols

“These ingredients penetrate pores and help remove excess skin and debris,” says Dr. Allawh. “They not only help treat sebaceous filaments, but also prevent [new] sebaceous filaments from forming.”