When you pull the skin on your chin taut, do you see a cluster of tiny, white dots under your lower lip? What about in the folds of your nose? Do you have small, greyish dots on your nose that seem impossible to get rid of? If you answered yes to any of these, you probably have sebaceous filaments. Don’t freak out! They’re totally normal, and almost everyone has them. They can often be mistaken for blackheads (especially on the nose), but shouldn’t necessarily be treated the same way. Keep reading to learn how to get rid of these filaments and what makes them different from blackheads.
What Are Sebaceous Filaments?
Sebaceous filaments are naturally-occurring, tube-like structures that line the walls of your pores. Their purpose is to direct oil flow. Your skin produces oil (also known as sebum) in order to protect and moisturize itself. Sebaceous filaments help guide that oil from your sebaceous glands, where the oil is produced, to the surface of your skin where the oil can get to work fighting environmental aggressors and dehydration.
For the most part, sebaceous filaments aren’t really visible to the naked eye. But when you have an overproduction of sebum in your skin, the oil can build up and start to harden until it eventually stretches the pore and starts to “spill out” (I promise, it’s not as gross as it sounds!). This is when they start to become visible.
Where Do You Get Them and What Do They Look Like?
Since sebaceous filaments are associated with oil production, they show up in areas where we naturally produce a lot of oil (think t-zone). Specifically, on and around the nose, and on the chin under the lower lip. They also tend to form in the creases and folds of our skin since oil accumulates here.
Sebaceous filaments vary in color. They can be grey, yellowish, or white. When on the nose, they are usually light or dark grey, which is why they often get confused for blackheads. But when they’re found around the edges of the nose (especially in the folds where your nose meets your cheeks) or on the chin, they’re more likely to be white or yellowish.
Sebaceous filaments are named for their shape and come out looking like just that—a filament. If you squeeze them (which you shouldn’t, more on that later!), they come out as a thin tube or strand.
Sebaceous Filaments vs. Blackheads
So, what exactly is the difference between blackheads and sebaceous filaments?
The most obvious differences are color and size. Sebaceous filaments tend to be lighter in color than blackheads and appear grey, yellowish, or white. Blackheads are—you guessed it—black. This is a result of sebum and dead skin cells being exposed to air and oxidizing. Blackheads are typically bigger than sebaceous filaments.
Another important distinction is that, unlike blackheads, sebaceous filaments are not technically comedones (clogged pores). Comedones are the precursors to acne breakouts, whereas sebaceous filaments don’t really turn into pimples unless you mess with them. This is because they don’t fully block pores the way comedones do; instead, the buildup coats the walls of your pores leaving the center more or less open. That said, if you have acne-prone skin, you’re more prone to sebaceous filaments because you produce a lot of oil.
Even though sebaceous filaments don’t usually turn into acne, they can turn into blackheads if enough oil gets built up inside the pore. To make matters even more confusing, a person can have both blackheads and sebaceous filaments (especially on the nose).
How to Get Rid of Sebaceous Filaments on the Nose and Chin
Before I address how to get rid of sebaceous filaments, let me just say that having them is completely normal! Since they’re part of the natural structure of our skin, almost everyone has them to an extent. Thanks to photoshop, we might not think this is the case, but trust me—it is.
It’s also important to know that even if you extract or squeeze sebaceous filaments, they will fill up again within thirty days. There is really no way to permanently get rid of them. That said if you have a lot of them and they bug you, there are ways to minimize their appearance and prevent further formation.
Which Ingredients Should I Use?
These are hands-down the best ingredients for minimizing sebaceous filaments.
Salicylic Acid (BHA)
For your at-home routine, focus on salicylic acid for sebaceous filaments. Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), which means it’s able to cut through oil and get deep into your pores. This will allow it to start breaking up the gunk clogging your pores, minimizing the appearance of the filaments and preventing more from cropping up. Look for BHA in a leave-on product like Rapid Response Detox Toner. If you have sensitive skin, the nice thing about this product is that you can apply it to the affected areas only. For a little more oomph, I suggest a leave-on, exfoliating acid serum like BHA Clarifying Serum. This will be more potent than a toner or cleanser.
Retinol and Retinoids
Retinol and retinoids can also be really effective against sebaceous filaments. They increase the rate of cell turnover, which keeps dead skin cells from getting stuck in your pores. This, in turn, helps regulate oil flow and prevents sebum from building up and hardening. If your skin is sensitive or you haven’t used retinol before, I suggest starting with an over the counter retinol. If you have oilier skin or have used retinol before, you can try a retinoid such as Differin, which is still available over the counter.
Don’t discount the power of a physical scrub. A gentle, mechanical action can be super effective at sloughing off filaments so they’re less noticeable. For this, I recommend a product like AHA/BHA Blemish Control Cleanser. It includes jojoba beads that will exfoliate without causing damage to the skin as well as both alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids. For a little extra exfoliation, you can also leave this cleanser on your skin for a few minutes before rinsing it off.
Finally, be sure to keep your skin well-hydrated using an oil-free moisturizer like Skin Recovery Lotion. While salicylic acid and retinol are amazing for keeping pores clear, they have the potential to dry out the skin. If sebaceous filaments are a concern, this is the last thing you want. Dry, dead skin cells will trap oil underneath, which could mean even more excess oil building up inside your pores. Not to mention that sebaceous filaments will appear more visible if the surrounding skin is dehydrated. This is also why I don’t recommend using a clay mask for sebaceous filaments. The results will be temporary and the skin can quickly become dehydrated.
It’s always important to choose the right moisturizer for your skin type. Using something too heavy runs the risk of clogged pores.
Should I Try to Extract Sebaceous Filaments?
Tempting as it may be, it’s really best if you can avoid trying to extract sebaceous filaments. As I mentioned, you can never truly get rid of them this way. So while you might get some instant gratification, it won’t do you any favors in the long run. Not only this, but you risk pushing oil and bacteria from your fingers deep into the pore, which could cause an infection and lead to a full-on breakout. Squeezing at the skin too much can also lead to bruising or, worse, scarring.
If you really want your sebaceous filaments extracted, go see an esthetician. They might start with a BHA chemical peel to dissolve dead skin cells and oil buildup, which will make extractions easier. Your filaments will still fill up again within thirty days, but putting yourself in the hands of a professional greatly reduces the risk of damaging your skin.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”