When is a Blackhead not a Blackhead?

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.

Understanding the Skins Acid Mantle

27 Comments
  1. Thankyou for the information!
    I always thought the sebaceous filaments were nasty and could be gotten rid of. But now I know better. Have to live with them.

    1. I am not pleased to learn that sebum in the pores of my nose is a good thing. These came about after I was taking a medication and I am not pleased. Surely somehow this can be stopped. I came across a skin care medication called DERMALOGICA, which is advertised as something to get rid of the sebum and will continue to try. I will not continue to “live with them”.

      1. Hi Marge, I understand your frustration. If you are using good quality skincare that contains ingredients to control sebum you will in turn manage your sebaceous filaments. You don’t have to ‘live with them’ but do accept that sebum part of a bigger picture and essential to maintaining healthy skin. If you are producing excess oil and suffering with congested skin, regular professional skin treatments, exfoliation using fruit enzymes and salicylic acid in addition to certain AHAs will help. What you will have to accept with sebum is that you will never be truly rid of it and you shouldn’t want to be as it serves a purpose. If you are using Dermalogica, go see a Dermalogica professional and have them analyze your skin and recommend the correct products, monthly targeted facials will also help.

  2. Came here to end an arguement with one of my friends who kept insisting she had blackheads! They were just sebaceous filaments which I told her in the first place.

    Are you going to write anything more about blackheads? I’m trying multiple techniques from http://www.nose-blackheads.com atm to get rid of blackheads. Could you write your own piece about it?!

    1. Hi Marie, I am glad you found the article useful! I am in the process of writing a number of articles looking at other professional and at home treatments that really give good results in the constant battle against congestion which will be published over the coming weeks.

    1. Hi Katie, personally I find the Clarisonic far too abrasive on the skin. I did use one a few years back and while they do offer a deep clean, daily use is too much. I have seen the damaged caused by over use of such devices and can’t recommend them I’m afraid. I do quite like the Foreo sonic cleansers which are more hygienic and allow for a deep cleanse without any harsh scrubbing. However again I wouldn’t use them everyday.
      Try removing your cleanser and masks with a warm flannel cloth and use a light circular buffing action when doing so – to me this is a great way of combining deep cleansing and manual exfoliation. 🙂

  3. What makeup is good for minimizing the appearance of sebaceous filaments on the nose? To make them look like they’re not there?

    I never wore makeup in my life because I was okay with my skin, but my nose has been bugging me for a really long time 🙁 I pretty much have zero knowledge of makeup :”) I’d really like to make my nose not look like its covered in so many black dots ;A;

    1. Hi Jay personally I find a good quality powdered mineral make-up is the best for minimising their appearance. Also Benefit Professional primer is particularly good to use on the nose before applying your foundation.

    1. Glycolic Acid will help exfoliate your skin and manage sebaceous filaments. However Glycolic can be irritating to the skin, I prefer to use Lactic Acid which is better tolerated by our skin. AHAs such as Glycolic and Lactic will exfoliate the skin however using a BHA namely Salicylic Acid will work within the pore to dissolve impurities, excess oil and keep the pore clean – I like to use this in to keep filaments in check! Check out Bravura Salicylic Acid which is a 2% SA solution that can be used a couple of times a week if necessary and is very affordable!

  4. Thank you for explaining Blackheads v. Sebaceous Filaments! Sebum plugs! Oh my! I am 80 years old and have large pores at the creases of my nose from years of clearing the debris out. I will be more respectful now of being more gentle; and I realize that those pores do not need to be completely empty. A light touch every once in a while is better. They do need care though. I believe they need to be extracted gently and a mild antiseptic applied. Thank you so very much for a clear well presented site.

    1. Thank you Ruth for your lovely comment! I spent many years trying to squeeze the life out of them before I discovered the truth! I agree they do need maintenance and oil cleansing, enzyme exfoliation, clay masks combined with very gentle steaming are all excellent ways to manage them. If they are more persistent a daily serum or toner with 2% salicylic acid is also fantastic for keeping the pore clear.

  5. How do you handle them when they seem to pop out? Every time I put on foundation, especially on my nose, within a few hours I have a tiny forest of white spikes!

    1. Hi Shirley,my best advice is to commit to a skincare regime that works to regularly control and clear sebaceous filaments and congestion in your skin. If you only wear makeup occasionally for events etc then I would prep the skin with a mild enzyme exfolialting mask or a clay mask that draws out impurities. You could follow with a primer that is designed for oilier skins and stipple/buff your foundation in to your nose when applying. If you wear make-up everyday then I would introduce a micro exfoliation as part of your skincare routine before applying make-up. This could include an oil cleanse that is removed with a luke warm flannel in circular motions that provides a gentle exfoliation action, although I personally prefer using an oil cleanser at night to make sure all make-up is removed. You could also introduce a cleanser containing salicylic acid as your morning cleanse and if you skin is particularly congested follow with a salicylic acid based serum (if it’s just your nose, apply the serum there). My final bit of advice is to use a mineral powder foundation for every day looks and only opt for full coverage non mineral foundations such as MAC/Urban Decay etc for special occasion make-up – as these foundations can clog the pores even more and make the situation worse. Good luck!

  6. Hi,

    In almost every response, you suggest Salicylic Acid.

    What if one has anaphylaxis to Aspirin? Can topical Salicylic Acid be used, particularly since you suggest letting it stay on the skin rather than being immediately washed away?

    If not, what do you suggest as a substitute?

    Thank you.

    1. Hi AJ

      Great question. While Salicylic is brilliant for treating congestion, blackheads, sebaceous filaments etc – I would avoid it if you suffer from an aspirin allergy, I would also avoid products containing Willow Bark, that is sometimes included in formulations as a more natural alternative to salicylic. While the small topical doses may not cause a reaction similar to that of taking an asprin as a pain medication, it is still advisable to avoid. You should however always seek the advice of a qualified medical professional on this.

      I do recommend SA a lot, simply because it works. But I also recommend many alternative treatments to help deal with SF. Enzyme exfoliation is great, its more gentle than chemical exfoliation. Other approaches I would recommend is introducing a retinol type product into your skincare routine and seeking a consultation with a skin professional to analyse your skin and help you choose the right ingredients/products to help analyse your needs.

      Hope that answers your question,

      Stephanie

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