Today I am going to talk about and explain a very misunderstood skin concern – Sebaceous Filaments. For many many years I thought my nose was covered in blackheads and as an 80s/90s child I was bamboozled with adverts for Clearasil and the likes, damning those nasty blackheads and encouraging us to use their products which were akin to paint stripper to banish them. Then there was the amazing scientific skincare discovery (ahem) that was the pore strip – these horrible plaster like strips were little more than fabric/cotton sprayed with an adhesive that when placed on the nose wet, would dry gripping onto your ‘blackheads’ and rip them out – satisfying to look at but not very kind to you skin! But you see the thing is that these were not infact blackheads on my nose but sebaceous filaments. Even when I was completing my beauty therapy diploma I was still confused and swore blind I was covered in blackheads to which my lecturer told me I wasn’t – but never offered the explanation that they were not blackheads but the aforementioned sebaceous filaments / sebum plugs.
I know that I was not alone in this confusion and as the years go on, more and more clients are conscious of their pores and what they perceive to be blackheads. The revolution of photoshop and the ‘pore-less perfection’ look doesn’t help the matter, making us mere 3-D mortals even more conscious of our perceived flaws as we constantly compete with technology. But you see the thing is that sebaceous filaments are a totally normal part of skin function and health and everybody has them!
Blackhead vs Sebaceous Filament
As professional skin therapists we know that blackheads are open comedones, slightly raised from the skin and dark/black in colour due to oxidation. When extracted they appear a hard/solid wax like plug which contains sebum, bacteria and skin debris. They can be yellow in colour which a distinctive dark pin like head.
Sebaceous Filaments appear as pin like dots over the nose, upper cheeks, chin and forehead. They can be grey/tan/flesh coloured and tend to be grouped together. If pressure is applied they pop out like whitish spikes. They tend to plentiful and quite literally never ending, made up of skeleton of 10-30 horny cell layers which enclose a mixture of bacteria, sebaceous lipid, corneocyte fragments – they are basically our naturally occurring sebum which is present in our skin / pores / hair follicles. There is no getting rid of them – even when extracted they refill within 30 days – usually sooner. There is no treatment a skincare professional can offer to banish sebaceous filaments for good. But we know as professionals that sebum plays a massive role in skin health and preserving its integrity so we would never look to rid the skin of it completely.
Sebum is made up of squalene, triglycerides and wax esters. One of the main roles of sebum is its purpose as a waterproof barrier on our skin it keeps our skin healthy and protected by fighting bacterial and fungal infection. So even if we could, we wouldn’t want to get rid of it all together would we? (Find out why here) Obviously in acneic skin types we work to control excessive sebum/oil production etc. but when dealing with sebaceous filaments you need to educate your clients that a) they are not blackheads and b) you can’t get rid of them.
Minimising the Appearance of Sebaceous Filaments
If like me you are conscious of these filaments there are a couple of things you can do to minimize their appearance. First thing is step away from the magnifying mirror it only makes the situation worse. Second thing is to accept they are a natural part of our skins composition and probably are not as noticeable than we think. Some people, who have an oilier skin type may have more pronounced sebaceous filaments. We know that pores cannot be made smaller or closed – they are what they are but we can refine them to make them appear smaller/less pronounced. Essentially we will work to reduce the amount of oil/sebum in the pore which helps with appearance – but we know that we can’t get rid of sebum for good, nor do we want to – we work to reduce and refine.
Professional treatments effective for deep cleansing of the pores include machine based treatments such as Galvanic Desincrustation. Skincare products such as charcoal/kaolin masks are excellent for drawing out impurities and excess oil, but my favourite method of treatment is the use of professional strength enzyme peels/masks and products with salicylic acid as an active ingredient.
Enzyme Peels – These peels are mild (compared to AHA peels) that only work on the upper epidermal layers/ dead cells on the surface of the skin. They use what are known as keratolytic enzymes that help speed up the break down keratin in the skin. They work to exfoliate the superficial layers and dislodge/dissolve sebaceous filaments and are excellent for sensitive skins or skin types that don’t require a deeper peel such as Glycolic. There are many great professional enzyme peel/exfoliating products which can be used as part of a facial and prescribed as part of a proactive home care regime – look for products containing the 3 Ps – papaya, pumpkin and pineapple enzymes.
Salicylic Acid – This is a Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) which has excellent exfoliating properties. Often found in cleansers and products designed to treat acne/excess oil production, when I refer to it for treating sebaceous filaments I am talking about products containing it in a low percentage. Salicylic Acid works to break down skin cells, which stick together in the inner lining of the skin pore, it physically decglogs pores by breaking down/exfoliating filaments, blackheads, whiteheads from the inside – keeping the pore clear. I prefer a product containing salicylic that is left on the skin such as a spot treatment, serum or moisturiser as opposed to a cleanser which is washed off before the ingredient gets to do its thing. You have to be careful using any products with this ingredient in as it can dry out the skin – so don’t use it everyday maybe once a week or a couple of times a month (don’t forget the filaments usually renew themselves within 30 days of being ‘cleared’) . It all depends on your clients skin and what other areas of concern you need to address.
So if you get a client who swears black is white that they have blackheads in abundance, reassure them that what they are concerned with are most likely Sebaceous Filaments (unless of course they do have a lot of blackheads – you will obviously be analysing the skin, in this article I am concerned with filaments only). Let them know how normal these are and while you or they will never rid of them – work on a treatment plan to control them and the overall skin health of your client. Monthly maintenance deep cleansing facial treatments are advisable for any client to maintain overall skin health – facials are necessary skin treatments not an occasional luxury and should be recommended to your client as such. Perhaps an initial course of more advanced facials is necessary first – you are the professional and it is up to you to use your expertise to analyse, evaluate and prescribe an effective skin care regime both in salon and at home.
The products and treatments I have mentioned are common to most if not all skincare treatment menus. You don’t need to create a stand alone treatment – chances are the deep cleansing facial you already offer will do the trick. The key here, is to educate your client on the how and why of their skin concern and advise on suitable treatments, home care and lifestyle changes. While sebaceous filaments are not a cause for concern or advanced treatment – they are most definitely a bugbear for many clients.
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Want to learn more about the skin and how best to treat it? Check out my other ‘Understanding Skin’ articles below.