Blackheads vs. Sebaceous Filaments: What’s the Difference & How to Treat Them

Blackheads vs. Sebaceous Filaments: What’s the Difference & How to Treat Them

Ah, I remember back in Ye Olden Times about five years ago when I was active on the r/AsianBeauty subreddit and the community discovered that blackheads and sebaceous filaments are not the same. We collectively became obsessed with trying to figure out which we had, which our fellow members had, and what we could do about each.

With each new wave of beauty and skincare enthusiasts, I get to watch this same eureka moment of discovery happen (as well as the heated debates that always follow along in its wake).

Maybe you’ve just recently learned the term “sebaceous filaments,” or maybe you know a little about the concept, but you’re still feeling confused. Totally understandable!

I’m going to explain each term and the differences between them, and then we’ll talk about how to handle them effectively so that your skin looks as smooth and beautiful as possible.

I remember when the AsianBeauty subreddit community discovered that blackheads and sebaceous filaments are not the same. We became obsessed.


What Are Sebaceous Filaments?

Let’s tackle the new term first. At first glance (or if you’ve read a less-than-helpful explanation), it might seem like sebaceous filaments ARE blackheads. While it’s true that they can look similar, the truth is that these guys are not the same at all.

We all have sebaceous filaments in our pores. Even the people with seemingly flawless skin have them. This is because they are not inherently bad! In fact, they’re downright useful when your skin is otherwise healthy.

See, sebaceous filaments coat the lining of your pores to help your skin’s natural oils flow easily to your skin. When your sebum flows normally (i.e., you don’t have super oily skin), sebaceous filaments are hardly noticeable, and they keep sebum from getting too backed up in your pores.

enlarged pores

The issue that makes us feel like we need to squeeze them out is when our pores are enlarged, distended, or too full of sebum. This tends to make the sebaceous filaments more noticeable, and because they often have a grayish tint, we can easily mistake them for pore-clogging blackheads.


So Then, What Are Blackheads?

Technically, blackheads are a form of acne. When your pores become enlarged and too full of sebum, there is a much greater chance that the sebum will mix with dirt, dead skin cells, and P. acnes bacteria to form what’s known as “open comedones.” (Whiteheads are called “closed comedones” because they have a “seal” of skin over them, whereas blackheads don’t.)

When your pores become enlarged and full of sebum, there is a greater chance that the sebum will mix with dirt, dead skin cells, and bacteria to form open comedones.

Blackheads are often much more noticeable than sebaceous filaments, and, as the name suggests, they are typically much darker and larger than sebaceous filaments. If your skin produces too much oil, or if the oil your skin produces is too thick and sticky, you’ll likely be prone to blackheads.


Okay, But I Don’t Want Either Of Them … Help!

I understand. Knowing the difference between sebaceous filaments and blackheads doesn’t make it any less annoying to look at them in the mirror.

First, let me just say this: You cannot get rid of sebaceous filaments. You can’t. And you shouldn’t want to! They have an important function. Even if you extract them from your pores, they’ll come back within a few weeks because they’re supposed to be there.

The best you can do is minimize their appearance. Fortunately, this dovetails perfectly with how to treat blackheads, so you can do both at the same time.

blackheads sebaceous filaments

Most of us get blackheads and noticeable sebaceous filaments in our T-zones. The T-zone has the highest concentration of oil-producing glands, so it’s natural for this to be the case (yes, even if you have dry skin!).

Your blackhead-fighting regimen should include oil cleansing, exfoliation, and clay masks.

1. Oil Cleansing

Oil cleansing is ideal for breaking up dirt, oil, and dead skin cell “grime,” and it’s the best way to ensure that all of your makeup and sunscreen comes off, too. Follow this up with a low pH cleanser so that you have a fresh canvas for your other treatments.

2. Exfoliation

I know that physical exfoliation gets a lot of side-eye in the beauty community, but the truth is that it can be really helpful if you do it correctly. Gently massaging your face with a washcloth, silicone-bristled scrubby, or sugar scrub can be a great way to slough off stubborn dead skin.

Of course, chemical exfoliation is the best way to achieve long-term results when it comes to minimizing the appearance of sebaceous filaments and getting rid of blackheads. A gentle BHA can penetrate deep into your pores to dissolve the excess sebum that’s typically responsible for the formation of blackheads. Adding a gentle AHA can also help to break up dead skin cells, which means that your pores stay clearer (and look smaller).

blackheads sebaceous filaments

Finally, adding low-grade retinol or retinoid (like Differin) can help with the overproduction of sebum while also refining your overall skin texture. When in doubt, ask a derm what would work best for your skin!

And remember the Golden Rule of Exfoliation: Start low and go slow. You can undo a lot of progress if you add too much exfoliation too quickly.

3. Clay Masks

Clay and charcoal masks are great for clearing up blackheads and making sebaceous filaments more invisible. They do a good job of drying up excess sebum, which contributes to clogged, enlarged pores.

blackheads sebaceous filaments

Since clay masks can be drying, it’s best to spot-treat just your trouble areas.

My favorite way to use clay masks is with my friend Jude’s now-famous “Fiddy Snails Grit Routine” (you can read about it here!) It involves combining BHA with clay masking, and then rinsing it all away with a good oil cleanser. The results are temporary, but it’s so satisfying to safely work out all of those noticeable oil plugs.


Work Smarter, Not Harder

Sebaceous filaments are an inevitable part of life, so it’s best to make peace with them sooner rather than later. The tips I mentioned for treating blackheads will also help to minimize the look and feel of sebaceous filaments while keeping your skin healthy. Combine them with a routine that includes plenty of skin-plumping moisture, and you’ll notice that your skin’s texture is much smoother over time!


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