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Have you ever noticed tiny dark dots on your face that don’t exactly look or behave like blackheads?

Well, they’re not blackheads at all.

Those specks, which are usually unnoticeable, are sebaceous filaments — harmless features that help keep your skin moist. They may sometimes form blackheads, but on their own, they’re naturally occurring and should be left alone.

Read on to learn more about sebaceous filaments and why to leave them, as well as how to treat and prevent blackheads.

At first glance, sebaceous filaments look like blackheads, so your first instinct may be to squeeze them or start scrubbing. But, attacking sebaceous filaments may cause more problems.

Before you do anything, take a closer look at your skin to know a little more about what you’re seeing.

Your skin contains sebaceous glands that produce sebum, the oily chemical that helps lubricate your skin.

The threadlike sebaceous filaments line the inside of your pores and help to move sebum from the sebaceous glands to the surface of your skin. Since they serve this important function, they should be left alone.

Most of the time, you never notice sebaceous filaments. But if a pore fills up with sebum, they can become more visible.

People with oily skin or enlarged pores may have sebaceous filaments that are easier to see. But unlike blackheads, sebaceous filaments tend to be sandy colored or light grey, rather than black.

Blackheads, on the other hand, are actually black in color. They appear when sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria collect around the opening of pore and form a little bump called a comedo.

If skin covers the comedo, it’s known as a whitehead. If the comedo remains open to the air, it’s a blackhead. The comedo turns black from exposure to the air.

A blackhead can form from a sebaceous filament. In these cases, it’s appropriate to be more aggressive with treatment.

Pictures of sebaceous filaments vs. blackheads

Fighting sebaceous filaments before a blackhead or whitehead forms is a losing battle that risks harming your skin. If you do squeeze a sebaceous filament and sebum emerges, remember: The pore will soon be lined with sebum again.

Sebaceous filaments are part of the natural composition of your skin. Though you may be tempted to squeeze or otherwise get rid of a sebaceous filament, it’s best to leave them alone.

Squeezing or picking at sebaceous filaments risks scarring and spreading any bacteria that may be in or around the pore to other parts of your face, causing a breakout.

Unlike sebaceous filaments, blackheads can and should be treated. Getting rid of blackheads can be done with a variety of treatments.

Salicylic acid

A type of beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid is an established acne treatment that helps exfoliate the skin and keeps pores clear.

Salicylic acid is available in many over-the-counter (OTC) products, as well as stronger versions that require a prescription.

Consider washing your face with a regular cleanser in the morning and using a salicylic acid product when washing your face at night.

You can also use a benzoyl peroxide wash as an additional treatment option. It can help remove excess acne bacteria on your skin.

Glycolic acid

Unlike salicylic acid, which has a drying effect on the skin, glycolic acid — an alpha hydroxy acid — can help treat blackheads and other types of acne while also helping your skin retain moisture.

Be careful, though, because glycolic acid can trigger reactions like swelling and itching in some people. You may be more sensitive to sunlight if you use glycolic acid, though a good sunscreen should help keep you safe.

Retinoids

Derived from vitamin A, retinoids like the OTC medication retinol help treat blackheads and other types of acne breakouts by accelerating the turnover of dead skin cells and exfoliating the skin.

Retinoids are available in different strengths, so you may want to try a milder product at first. It can take several weeks for results to appear.

Keep in mind, retinoids may make your skin sensitive to the sun. If you use a retinoid at night, be sure to apply a sunscreen in the mornings.

Face masks

Face masks made of activated charcoal or clay (kaolin or bentonite) help draw bacteria, dead skin cells, oil, dirt, and other impurities from the skin.

Both charcoal and clay masks may irritate the skin, especially if left on your face too long. They are, however, generally safe to use.

Pore vacuum

Aestheticians have a variety of tools and techniques to treat blackheads, including pore vacuums. These are especially effective in removing blackheads that have already been loosened with steam products or other exfoliating agents.

To help avoid blackheads or any type of clogs or acne, you should try to maintain a healthy skin regimen every day, especially if your skin is prone to breakouts and blemishes.

One way to make sebaceous filaments less noticeable is by cleaning and exfoliating your skin. This will help keep excess sebum from collecting and will let sebaceous filaments continue moving sebum effectively.

Effective strategies include:

  • washing and moisturizing your face in the morning and at night, including a cleanser with salicylic acid once a day
  • exfoliating once a week
  • using a face mask once a week
  • eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • seeing a dermatologist once a year (or more) to determine if more aggressive treatment is necessary to prevent blackheads and acne breakouts

Sebaceous filaments may look a little like blackheads, but they differ in some important ways.

Sebaceous filaments are natural, healthy features that help move sebum to the skin’s surface for moisturizing. Blackheads form when too much sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria clog a pore.

Because sebaceous filaments are a normal part of your skin’s moisturizing process, they should be left alone.

A consistent regimen of cleaning and exfoliating may be enough to keep excess sebum from collecting and turning a sebaceous filament into an unwanted blackhead.

If you’re unsure how much of a particular product to use or how often, consult with a board certified dermatologist, who may be able to help with extractions or prescription medications.