Sebaceous Filaments VS Blackheads
Sebaceous Filaments or Blackheads? What’s the difference? During my skin consultations I often get clients say they are concerned with blackheads on the nose or chin area. In the majority of cases they don’t have blackheads at all. However what they do have are called sebaceous filaments.
I have been fortunate enough to receive a lot of press coverage lately, discussing various skincare products and home devices designed to treat so-called “blackheads”. I also shared a photo of my own nose (covered in sebaceous filaments) on Instagram earlier this week. Based on the amount of likes, comments and shares the post has received across Instagram and Facebook, I realise its a very relevant topic. One that is still very much misunderstood by a lot of people.
The aim of this blog post is to demystify blackheads and sebaceous filaments. Therefore enabling you to make better product choices.
What Are Blackheads?
A “blackhead” is the non-medical term used to describe an open comedone. Comedones are essentially a blockage within the pore. They are formed due to a combination of excessive sebum secretions plus an over-production of keratinised skin cells. The two factors combine together to form a plug.
When this plug forms within the pore, closed off from air, they are referred to as “whiteheads”. However it’s when the comedones are exposed to air that is turns black, hence the name “blackhead”. The colour is a result of oxidised melanin pigment granules. They are NOT black because of dirt, which is common misconception.
It’s important to remember that blackheads are a key indicator of an acne prone skin. With Grade 1 Acne having multiple blackheads and whiteheads present. Blackheads can also appear anywhere on the face, chest and back.
What Are Sebaceous Filaments?
Sebaceous filaments in comparison are not blockages at all. They are actually free-flowing, albeit slowly, sebaceous secretions. They are effectively the lining of the follicle. The reason they are visible is because the pore has become enlarged and the amount of sebum being produced is increased. Sebaceous filaments may appear ‘black’ in colour but they’re actually more a grey as the sebum oxidises. If you squeeze them you’ll notice a soft oily substance come out. In comparison the texture is much softer and looser than a blackhead, which will be more of a firm, waxy substance.
A major difference is that sebaceous filaments can be associated with non-acneic skins. Anyone with an oilier complexion and enlarged pores are likely to have sebaceous filaments. They may not have OR may never had acne. A Rosacea skin is a prime example of someone who is unlikely to have blackheads (typically associated with Acne Vulgaris), but can very easily have sebaceous filaments.
Sebaceous filaments are also generally isolated to areas such as the nose and chin, where there are an abundance of sebaceous glands. They are also plentiful, grouped together having a party of your face! Whereas blackheads can and are usually wider apart or in smaller groups.
Why Does It Matter?
Why is it important to understand the difference? Firstly so you can select the right products to treat your skin appropriately. Secondly, so you have realistic expectations over what can be achieved.
The main differences with sebaceous filaments and blackheads, is there is no getting rid of them. If you extract a blackhead it won’t necessarily reappear. However if you attempt to extract sebaceous filaments they will refill again, anywhere from within a few days to 30 days. This is because your skin actually needs them. They are normal function of an oilier skin, there to protect the lining of the pore and prevent bacterial invasion.
If you’re unsure whether you have blackheads or sebaceous filaments, here’s a quick way to check. First step is ditch the magnifying mirror. They will warp your perception, as our eyes can be deceiving. Instead feel the skin during cleansing. If you can feel a plug / blockage in the skin then it’s a blackhead. If you can’t feel anything, then its a sebaceous filament.
In the pursuit of constantly trying to rid yourself of sebaceous filaments you may actually end up damaging the skin. Often products (such as those god awful Charcoal Peel-Off Masks) will strip the skin of all its natural and protective oils. This can lead to all sorts of barrier function issues, sensitised skin and secondary skin concerns such as dermatitis. I have also warned about the use of pore vacuum cleaners, which in my professional opinion will lead to broken capillaries if used long term.
Embrace The Filaments
One of the points I raise in my Instagram post is the issue of unrealistic views over what healthy skin should look like. We all have flaws and we all have insecurities about our appearance. These insecurities are being amplified because we are bombarded with fake image on social media on a daily basis. This warps our perception and gives us unrealistic expectations.
Photo-editing used to be an issue for magazines. But everyone with a smartphone can now apply a filter or use an app to smooth out or conceal anything we’re not happy with.
This is most definitely having an impact on the clients I see, as I’d say over 90% of them are concerned with pore size and so-called “blackheads” aka sebaceous filaments.
If they really bother you that much then using a salicylic acid or mandelic acid based product. Along with a Vitamin A (retinol or retinaldehyde) product. Can help to regulate the amount of sebum being reduced and therefore improve their appearance.
Remember that they are normal, they are natural, we all have them, so embrace them! And most importantly don’t be tempted to use products or devices that could compromise the health of your skin in the quest to get rid of them. You’ll be fighting a losing battle and damaging your skin in the process.