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Blackheads vs. Sebaceous Filaments—What’s the Difference?

Inspect your complexion closely enough and you’ll see your skin in a whole new light (and by ‘light’, we mean an unforgivingly well-lit bathroom accompanied by a 4x zoom mirror). While great for skincare rituals like dermaplaning and applying a face mask, it’s not so great for plucking your brows and criticizing your pores (read: popping and picking those whiteheads and blackheads), especially if those spots you’re noticing on your nose and chin aren’t actually pimples at all.

We’re talking about sebaceous filaments: structures commonly mistaken as blackheads that may be the reason why your acne products and spot treatments aren’t working. Learn how to tell the difference between sebaceous filaments and blackheads, along with how to treat each, down below.

What Are Sebaceous Filaments?

Also called sebum plugs, these tube-like structures transport sebum from your oil glands to the surface of the skin. While this may sound unappetizing, particularly to oil-prone and problem skin types, the job of the sebaceous filaments is actually pretty important. Sebum is created for a reason—all skin needs oil to stay protected, moisturized, and allow its other functions to work properly. Note: Sebum overproduction is another story. If that’s the case, opt for a cleanser made with salicylic acid, such as Keep the Peace, to help regulate excess oil.

Just like pores, everyone has sebaceous filaments—whether they’re visible or not is unique to each person. They’re typically found on the oilier sections of your face, such as the T-zone, and appear as dark gray or yellow-tinged dots.

Sebaceous Filaments vs. Blackheads

While sebaceous filaments are an essential part of skin’s function, blackheads are not. This type of non-inflammatory acne forms when a clogged pore is partially exposed to air, causing the impurities inside to become oxidized and dark in color.

Because both blackheads and sebaceous filaments are typically found in the same areas of the face and look similar, the two are often mistaken for each other. But there are two key differences that can help you distinguish between them: sebaceous filaments are smaller and slightly lighter in color than blackheads. If you still aren’t sure which you’re dealing with, you can always reach out to a dermatologist for an expert opinion. 

While sebaceous filaments aren’t a type of acne, they can become clogged with oil and dirt, stretching out your pores and appearing more prominently. And if that trapped oil is exposed to air, it’ll turn into—you guessed it—a blackhead. Not all sebaceous glands will create blackheads, however, and should otherwise be left alone.

Can I Pop Them?

Because sebaceous filaments are a normal part of skin’s function, they can not—and shouldn’t really be—treated. Extracting them or using a pore strip (which, by the way, is probably only pulling out these filaments and not blackheads at all) may reduce their appearance temporarily, but they’ll always return a few weeks later because skin relies on them. Just like anything else on your face, you should avoid popping sebaceous filaments and blackheads, since you’ll risk scarring and spreading impurities to other areas of your skin.

While you can’t remove your sebaceous filaments, you can work on the appearance of them. The best place to start is to target troubled, stretched-out pores through exfoliation. Whether you opt for manual (like our Microcrystal Exfoliator) or chemical exfoliation (such as a Resurfacing Mask), this essential step cleans out all the dirt, oil, dead skin cells, and other junk trapped inside pores to leave skin looking clear, bright, and smooth. When pores are unclogged, they’ll look smaller in size (remember: pore size is genetic) and sebaceous glands won’t show up so prominently.

As for any actual pimples you may be experiencing, exfoliating on a regular basis (we recommend 1-3 times a week) has its fringe benefits for acne, too. But if you want to specifically target a blackhead, cover it with a pimple cream like our Acne Drying Treatment. It uses 10% sulfur to absorb excess oil and unclog pores without stripping the skin. Or if you’re looking to cover a larger area of breakouts, pop on a clay mask like Find Clarity.

More zit-related q’s? Read a dermatologist’s answers to our most pressing acne questions.