Share on Pinterest
Hiraman/Getty Images

A sebaceous cyst is almost as tempting to pop as a pimple — but hold that thought before you do.

Popping a sebaceous cyst at home by yourself could increase your risk for inflammation, infection, and discomfort. In short, this is a cyst your doctor is better off removing.

Keep reading to find out more about sebaceous cysts and how you should and shouldn’t treat them.

The term sebaceous cyst can be misleading. These cysts don’t arise from sebaceous (sweat) glands, but instead from cells above a hair follicle known as the infundibulum.

For this reason, doctors now commonly call them epidermoid cysts. Some ways to recognize these cysts include:

  • Location. These cysts are most commonly found on the face, neck, abdomen, and back.
  • Compressibility. You can usually press on the cyst, and it’ll move toward the skin.
  • Center appearance. The cyst may have a visible opening in its center that’s usually black in color. Doctors call this area a punctum.
  • Contents. If a sebaceous cyst accidentally ruptures, it’ll likely release a foul-smelling, thick, yellow substance that’s a combination of fats and proteins.

Men are twice as likely to have sebaceous cysts than women. Those ages 30 to 40 are also most likely to have this type of cyst.

Share on Pinterest
Inflamed sebaceous cyst. Photography courtesy of Steven Fruitsmaak/Wikimedia

Epidermoid or sebaceous cysts are inclusion cysts. This means they have a capsule around the cyst.

If you don’t remove the capsule or cell wall in its entirety, it’s likely that the cyst will grow back. Also, the cell wall tends to grow back thicker after an attempted partial removal or rupture, making the cyst harder to remove at a later time.

Removing the cyst at home also increases your risk of scarring. Doctors will use special techniques to try to reduce this likelihood.

Risk of infection

But the possibility the cyst could return is just one of the reasons you shouldn’t remove one yourself. Another reason is the risk of infection.

Doctors use sterile instruments and clean techniques to prevent infections, and attempting to remove the cyst at home can make you more vulnerable to them.

If you have a sebaceous cyst, there is some risk that you can disturb it through everyday activities. This includes your clothes rubbing against the cyst or accidentally hitting the cyst on a hard surface. This often depends on where your cyst is located.

If you have a cyst that appears inflamed, some of your at-home treatment options include:

  • Warm compresses. Applying a warm compress to the cyst may help to reduce redness and discomfort.
  • Cleaning the affected area. Cleaning the affected area with mild soap and water can help minimize the risk of bacteria entering the cyst. You don’t necessarily have to apply a bandage to the area — just keeping it clean and dry can help.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. If the cyst is painful, taking OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen can help reduce symptoms.

The most common method a doctor will use to remove the cyst is surgical excision, or complete removal.

Typically, your doctor will only remove a cyst if it’s not infected. Otherwise, it can be difficult for them to determine the cyst’s edges.

If the cyst is infected, your doctor may inject antibiotics into the cyst and recommend waiting to remove it until the infection has subsided.

The removal process

Unless the sebaceous cyst is very large in size, your doctor can usually remove it in their office. To remove the cyst, they typically follow this process:

  1. Inject the cyst with a local anesthetic to reduce pain and minimize bleeding.
  2. Use a cutting device, such as a scalpel, to remove the cyst. What’s most important is to remove the cyst with its wall intact (not ruptured). This approach will reduce the likelihood that the cyst will return.
  3. Sew the incision closed with stitches to minimize scarring and promote healing.

Some doctors will use a different approach to remove the sebaceous cyst, which involves using a special device that creates a punch biopsy. This tool has a circular cutting end where your doctor can remove the cyst evenly.

You should see your doctor if you experience the following symptoms related to a sebaceous cyst:

  • pain
  • redness
  • swelling
  • warmth to the touch

These symptoms may indicate that your cyst has become infected and requires treatment. Although it’s tempting, remember to avoid manipulating or squeezing the cyst.

If you’ve had a sebaceous cyst removed, follow your doctor’s instructions to keep the area clean and dry. If you have infection symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.

Cancer risk

For the most part, sebaceous cysts are benign (noncancerous). In very rare instances, they can become cancerous.

For example, squamous cell carcinoma, a rare type of skin cancer that often begins on the eyelid, can arise in a sebaceous cyst.

If you notice changes in the cyst’s appearance, including any of the following, talk with your doctor:

  • bleeding
  • oozing
  • color changes
  • swelling

Sebaceous cysts are rarely a medical concern, but they can be a cosmetic one and are sometimes uncomfortable.

If you have a sebaceous cyst that you’re concerned about, speak with your doctor about potential removal options. To minimize your infection risk, don’t try to do it yourself at home.

Leaving sebaceous cyst removal to your doctor will increase the likelihood that the cyst will not return.