I remember going for a deep pore cleansing facial when I was in my early 20s. This was during the time where my skin was at its worst, and I was so frustrated since I’d been told it would clear up by then. I had Stage 4 cystic acne, which included painful nodules on my chin plus a lovely assortment of papules and pustules. It also seemed like I had blackheads in every single pore.

While pore extractions are never fun, I was looking forward to the aesthetician getting all the gunk out! I braced myself for the pain of the ominous extractions, and while the aesthetician did extract the pustules, she stopped rather quickly and said it was time for my masque. I was quite surprised! After all, I was expecting to be sitting there for an hour, having every pore poked, squeezed, and prodded to remove the blackheads.

“What about all the blackheads?” I asked.

“What blackheads? You have mostly cysts and pustules but I don’t see blackheads.” She said.

“But what about all those dark pores on my nose? And what about the tiny prickly ones on my chin?” I asked.

“Those aren’t blackheads–that’s just the color of the oil in your pores.” She explained.

Well that sounded preposterous to me at the time. But years later when I was in aesthetics school and was complaining that my instructor wouldn’t do more extractions on my “blackheads,” she said pretty much the same thing–except this time she called the dark spots in my pores by their technical term: sebaceous filaments.

What are sebaceous filaments?

Though there is one inflamed comedone and other breakouts, the dark follicles on this person's nose are primarily sebaceous filaments, not blackheads.

Though there is one inflamed comedone here (likely from picking), these are primarily sebaceous filaments.

While sebaceous filaments might resemble the color of small blackheads with a brown or dark grayish appearance, these cylindrical tubes are actually a whitish-yellowish color. They fill the follicles (AKA pores) in certain parts of the face where pores are typically enlarged such as the nose and areas around the nose, forehead, and chin.

You might be wondering if these filaments are composed of pus (which indicates bacterial infection) due to their color, which would make them some kind of milia or whitehead instead of a blackhead. Thankfully not, and what they are composed of is more complex and I think, more interesting than that. One definition states that “sebaceous filaments are composed of a skeleton of 10 to 30 horny cell layers which enclose a mixture of bacteria (not necessarily pathogenic), sebaceous lipid, corneocyte fragments and one hair (each pore is, in fact, a hair follicle).” These horny cell layers aren’t as exciting as they sound–I think perhaps the term “spiny” is a more accurate term since it refers to the spiny layer of the epidermis–the stratum spinosum.

Layers of the Epidermis

Layers of the Epidermis

While it is certainly possible to extract (AKA “pop”) sebaceous filaments, the effort is futile since they always come back. The above referred to definition states that they return within 30 days–which would make sense since that’s the average cell turnover rate for most people. However, I’ve seen them return in just a few days in some clients. I wouldn’t worry about these though–they are a normal part of the physiology of the sebaceous glands; and it’s highly unlikely that they will ever progress into an actual blackhead, papule, inflamed pustule, or cyst if you leave them alone and follow the correct skincare regimen for your skin. And although you might find them unappealing, it’s likely that the only person who can notice them is you.

What are blackheads?

Blackheads, otherwise known as comedones or comedos, are considered a form of acne and can progress into more advanced stages of acne like papules, pustules, and cysts. Comedones (either open or closed) occur when the follicles become impacted (clogged) with accumulated dead skin cells, excess sebum, dirt, and debris (edited to add: and melanin pigment, which when oxidized, causes the dark appearance). Like sebaceous filaments, this matter is often light yellowish in color, but appears “black” due to oxidation. While comedones aren’t inflamed on their own, they can certainly become inflamed from picking, touching one’s face, using incorrect products, over-exfoliation, and other factors.

One might think that simply “popping” the blackhead will remove it forever, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Once the plug that was the blackhead is removed, what’s left is an empty enlarged pore, which will fill back up with the same matter that caused the blackhead in the first place–or worse, bacteria–which can cause a simple blackhead to be replaced by a more severe pustule.

THESE are blackheads.

THESE are blackheads.

Unlike sebaceous filaments, which are normal for many people, blackheads have both internal and external causes–many of which can be easily addressed with dietary changes, a boost in hygiene and lifestyle practices, and the correct products and facial treatments. This holistic approach can get rid of existing blackheads and also prevent new ones from forming. You can learn about exactly which skincare to avoid, and which ingredients to look for in my workbook series Find Your Synergistic Skin Combination.

What’s the best way to get minimize the appearance of sebaceous filaments and get rid of blackheads?

Click HERE to read the next post in this series: 8 Ways to Keep Blackheads and Sebaceous Filaments in Check.

We’ll go over how you can manage both sebaceous filaments AND blackheads using nutrition, aesthetics, and handmade skincare.

*Image 2:”Nose with Blackhead 2009″ by LBPics – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nose_with_Blackhead_2009.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Nose_with_Blackhead_2009.jpg. Image 3 by OpenStax College [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Image 4 from By M. Sand, D. Sand, C. Thrandorf, V. Paech, P. Altmeyer, F. G. Bechara [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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