The Difference Between Sebaceous Filaments and Blackheads

Sable Yong
The Difference Between Sebaceous Filaments and Blackheads
Photo: Getty Images/Yuri Arcurs

Even when we’re religiously using pore strips and face masks—or spend more time than we’d like to admit performing painful at-home extractions in our bathroom mirror—we still seem to be plagued with those infuriating little black dots on our nose (and sometimes cheeks and chin). Seriously, WTH? Most of us assume they’re blackheads and treat them as so, but the actual truth of the matter is that those little suckers aren’t blackheads at all—they’re actually sebaceous filaments, aka whiteheads.

And what’s a whitehead, you ask? They are naturally occurring teeny tiny hairline formations on your skin that channel or wick oil from your pores onto your skin to moisturize it. Yup, your face produces its own moisturizer—pretty cool.

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Your pores naturally produce sebum all the time—some people produce more than others (which would be the cause of oily complexions) either because of genetics or hormonal activity. The filament portion allows the oil to climb out of your pore and onto your skin. When things like dead skin or cosmetic build-up get into your pores and plug them up and that pore is still producing its normal amount of sebum, that’s when it becomes a whitehead or blackhead. Whiteheads lie below the surface of your skin and blackheads are at the surface. The reason blackheads look black is because when that gunk clogging up your pore is exposed to air, it oxidizes due to the melanin in skin cells, turning black or dark brown.

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It’s easy to confuse a sebaceous filament for a tiny blackhead since there is a micro-fiber poking through, the bump may appear slightly raised and probably looks greyish or tan in color—slightly darker than your natural skin tone. You can squeeze all you want to no avail. If anything comes out, it’ll be sebum in the form of a tiny white snake (ew, sorry for that imagery). If you squeeze a blackhead, the top of the plug will be black or darker than the rest of what comes out. You really shouldn’t squeeze a blackhead, unless you’ve done the whole cleaning/steaming song-and-dance first to soften your pores for easy release. If you have to struggle to extract a blackhead, further squeezing can cause scarring, making the whole thing worse off.

So how do you make these blackhead-imposters appear less visible? Well there’s not much you can do to rid yourself of them altogether, but proper exfoliation and a clay mask every now and again (most clays have great oil-absorbing capabilities) should keep your pores free of debris and excess oil. The regular oil production at hand can be maintained or lessened with face oils. We know, it sounds crazy to add more oil to an oily situation, but it’s entirely possible that your skin produces that much oil because there isn’t enough already. Introducing oil to your skin will satiate that need to produce more.

As for those pore strips? Well, don’t be too disappointed if you pull them off and don’t find much evidence of blackheads—it’s just your normal face, sebaceous filaments and all.

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Originally published March 2015. Updated April 2017.

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