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Sebaceous Filaments vs. Blackheads: What’s the Difference and How to Beat Them Both

August 31, 2021

Sebaceous Filaments vs. Blackheads: What’s the Difference and How to Beat Them Both

You've tried everything to get rid of your blackheads- face scrubs, clay masks, pore strips. And not a thing seems to be working. Sound familiar? 

If you’ve fought with this common skincare fight before, chances are you aren’t dealing with blackheads at all. Enter sebaceous filaments. These are a natural part of the skin's hair follicle that look like blackheads. But they aren't full of the same gunk and can't always be dealt with the same way. 

Blackheads and sebaceous filaments are easily confused because they look similar and typically appear in the same regions of the face. But there’s a stark difference between the two and how you should be treating them.

We’re breaking down the differences between sebaceous filaments and blackheads and giving you tips for dealing with both ahead!

What are blackheads?

Blackheads are pockets of oxidized melanin on the surface of the skin. Blackheads occur when the pores in the skin become plugged with dead skin cells and an oily, protective substance known as sebum. 

The top of the blackhead, which is visible on the surface of the skin, has a dark color. This is as a result of oxidation. Normally, hair grows from hair follicles in the pores, and the sebum-producing sebaceous glands lie underneath. You will most often see blackheads on your nose since these pores tend to be more oily and larger than the others on your face.

What causes blackheads?

Your genetics play a rolein the amount of oil your skin produces, but there are external factors that can also lead to blackheads. A build-up of haircare and skincare products; dirt and oil from your hands or phone; and makeup (even non-comedogenic) can all clog your pores and cause blackheads to form. Basically, anything that blocks your pores can cause blackheads.

What are sebaceous filaments? 

Also known as sebum plugs, sebaceous filaments may look like blackheads but are quite different in functionality and cause. While blackheads are a form of congestion, sebaceous filaments are actually part of your skin. 

They are 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.

So, where a blackhead is the clogging of dead skin cells, pollution, and sebum within a pore, a sebaceous filament is purely the overproduction of sebum from a hair follicle. In short, the oil inside the hair follicle simply makes the pore appear larger, which is why it’s so easy to mistake it for a blackhead. 

What causes sebaceous filaments?

Sebaceous filaments are tiny collections of oil and dead skin cells that build up in your hair follicles. They are caused by an overactivity in your sebaceous glands. These are tiny glands found throughout the skin that secrete sebum into your hair follicles to moisturize your skin. 

Like blackheads, sebaceous filaments also represent a build-up of oils and skin cells within the oil gland. But the build-up does not result in complete obstruction of the duct.Unlike blackheads, sebaceous filaments are not truly blocked pores. Sebaceous filaments can, however, turn into blackheads.

What do sebaceous filaments look like? 

Similar to blackheads, whiteheads, and acne, sebaceous filaments are most commonly found in the oiliest areas of the face, like your T-zone. Your T-zone is the part of your face with the most oil-secreting glands. It's made up of your forehead, nose, and chin (these areas line up in the shape of a T). Sebaceous filaments appear as tiny black dots on the surface of your pores but are often smaller in size than a blackhead.

Blackheads vs. Sebaceous Filaments

Unlike blackheads, sebaceous filaments are not actually clogged pores. Nor are they in the same family as acne or breakouts. Sebaceous filaments are simply normal pores that have filled up to the surface with sebum. 

Blackheads, on the other hand, are a form of acne known as an open comedone. This is a mass of oil and dead skin, which turns dark when exposed to oxygen. Blackheads have a plug-like appearance when extracted, where sebaceous filaments more closely resemble a free-flowing wax-like sebum. 

How to Treat Blackheads

Cleanse with salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is perfect for treating blackheads because it breaks down the excess oil and dead skin cells that clog pores. Using a salicylic acid will help you treat blackheads and deep clean your pores. If you have dry skin, consider using a salicylic acid cleanser at night only and a gentler formula in the morning. As your skin gets used to the salicylic acid, you may choose to use it in both your AM and PM skincare routines.

Exfoliate with AHAs and BHAs

Exfoliation removes existing blackheads and the dead cells leading to clogged pores. Glycolic acid is the most common type of AHA, and salicylic acid is a prominent BHA. Both work by removing the top layer of your skin. Swap your regular face cleanser with a brightening cleanser with glycolic acid to improve the visible signs of aging while clearing pores and making your skin softer.

Try topical retinoids

Retinoids can be particularly useful for stubborn blackheads. Retinols can even make your other skincare products more effective by helping them absorb better into your skin. But if you’ve got dry or damaged skin, you may want to avoid retinoids.

Use a clay mask

Clay helps to draw out oils and toxins from the skin, helping to unclog pores. If you have oily skin, a clearing clay mask is a useful addition to your skincare routine. Use it once a week in addition to any exfoliating treatments.

Use non-comedogenic products

The right cleansers, masks, and exfoliators won’t do a thing for getting rid of blackheads if they aren’t non-comedogenic. Non-comedogenic means that the product won’t cause clogged pores (remember comedones?)  But not all products are non-comedogenic, so be sure to read product labels carefully.

Don’t sleep in your makeup

If you’re sleeping with your makeup on you’re just asking for more blackheads. Even non-comedogenic makeup can clog your pores if left on overnight. Keep some micellar water and cotton pads near your bed so even if you’re exhausted, you can do a quick cleanse before you fall asleep.

How to Treat Sebaceous Filaments

Double cleanse

You can't get rid of sebaceous filaments completely, as they are a part of our skin. But you minimize their appearance on the skin's surface. The best way to do this is by double-cleansing. Double cleansing involves using a cleansing oil or micellar water to break down any products or sebum on the surface of your skin first, then following with a deeper water-based cleanse.

Chemically exfoliate 

Just like with blackheads, chemical exfoliants like AHAs and BHAs are your best friends for removing dead skin cells and excess oils. Pay close attention to the sides of your nose and your chin, as that’s where sebaceous filaments are most susceptible to forming. 

Try an at-home facial

A facial is a multi-step skincare process that deep cleans your pores, sloughs away dead skin cells, and gives your skin a reboot. Most facials follow a pattern of cleansing, exfoliating, steaming, extracting, masking, treating, moisturizing, and massaging. See our step by step at-home facial guide here.

Time for more retinoids

Retinol and retinoids can be really effective against sebaceous filaments. Apply a thin layer of retinol daily after cleansing. If you're sensitive or new to retinol, you should start with two to three times per week, then work your way up to daily use. You should see a major difference in your skin within two months.

Keep your skin hydrated

Even (and especially) if you have oily skin it’s important to keep it hydrated. Dehydrated skin produces even more oil. Use a daily moisturizer that’s lightweight but contains hydrating ingredients like a hyaluronic acid serum. And be sure that you’re drinking plenty of water every day to keep yourself hydrated from the inside, as well.

Wrapping up

Commonly confused with blackheads, sebaceous filaments are completely normal and nothing to be concerned about. They're also very different from blackheads. Sebaceous filaments are there to help your skin rather than to clog it. While blackheads are a form of congestion typically seen on the nose and forehead, sebaceous filaments are actually part of your skin. 

When sebaceous filaments become clogged with oil and dirt, they can closely resemble blackheads.  A sebaceous filament may or may not turn into a blackhead—the determining factor is whether the sebum in the pore-lining becomes exposed to oxygen (thereby oxidizing and becoming dark, changing into a blackhead).

Beneficial or not, there's no harm in trying to diminish their appearance, as is the case with blackheads. Try the skincare steps discussed above, and your skin will be clear of little black dots in no time.