Typically cropping up on the nose, they are a combination of dead skin cells and sebum inside a pore, which, when exposed to air, tend to darken over time, hence the difference in colour compared to cystic spots or whiteheads. But while it’s satisfying to prod and pummel them into oblivion, how do you know if they are blackheads or whether they’re actually sebaceous filaments?
Sebaceous filaments aren’t as gross as they sound. In fact, according to skin experts, confusing sebaceous filaments with blackheads is much more common than we think. "Sebaceous filaments and blackheads can look very similar and it is very easy to get them confused," says facialist and skin expert, Kate Kerr, "but there is a stark difference between the two."
"Our faces are covered in fine, tiny hairs, and every hair follicle from which these grow has a sebaceous gland which produces sebum," continues Kate. "An overproduction of sebum from this gland can cause it to become clogged and appear like a blackhead. So, where a blackhead is a clogging of dead skin cells, pollution and sebum within a pore, a sebaceous filament is purely the overproduction of sebum from a hair follicle." In short, the oil inside the hair follicle simply makes the pore appear larger, which is why it’s so easy to mistake it for a blackhead. But there’s no need to squeeze. In fact, Kate strongly advises against it due to the risk of pushing bacteria deeper into the skin.
Minimising the appearance of sebaceous filaments is easy – and it’s all in the oil control. Your first port of call should be salicylic acid. The BHA – beta hydroxy acid – works to slough away the paste-like mixture of dead skin cells and oil on the surface of the skin, but it also has the clever ability to penetrate the pore, regulating oil production at a deeper level. "BHAs like salicylic acid also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties," mentions Kate, who also recommends the ZO Skin Health Offects TE-Pads Acne Pore Treatment, £39, for treating both sebaceous filaments and blackheads. The Ordinary’s Salicylic Acid 2% Solution, £4.20, is also great at preventing pores from going into oil overdrive. Simply apply it to dry skin after cleansing and let it work its magic.
Cleansers that harness AHAs like lactic and glycolic acid are also effective at mopping up excess sebum. Goldfaden MD’s Detox Clarifying Wash, £32, is an airy foam that is packed with the duo and makes oily skin feel fresh and supple by cutting through the oil pools that tend to collect around your T-zone. A weekly clay mask will also work to absorb oil slicks. Try Isla Apothecary’s Skin Purifying Mud, £30, which combines exfoliating salicylic acid with kaolin and rhassoul clay to draw away excess sebum.
Where blackheads are concerned specifically, wonder skincare ingredient retinol is a great shout. "Vitamin A derivatives – a.k.a. retinols – are also key to combating blackheads, as they stimulate cell turnover, which, in turn, prevents clogging," advises Kate. "Also, think about swapping standard moisturisers for hyaluronic acid, which won’t cause as much congestion." And whatever you do, refrain from digging them out yourself. "Extractions should always be performed by an experienced professional, with proper preparation pre- and post-extraction so as not to cause skin damage or further breakouts," says Kate. "I’d also recommend having a facial once per skin cycle, so every 4-6 weeks. They help to stimulate cell turnover and focus heavily on extracting comedones," which are small bumps usually found on the forehead and chin in acne-prone skin types.