Sebaceous glands are attached to hair follicles all over your body. They release sebum onto your skin’s surface. Sebum is a mixture of fats and cell debris that creates a slightly greasy layer on your skin. It helps keep your skin flexible and hydrated.
Sebaceous hyperplasia occurs when the sebaceous glands become enlarged with trapped sebum. This creates shiny bumps on the skin, especially the face. The bumps are harmless, but some people like to treat them for cosmetic reasons.
Sebaceous hyperplasia causes yellowish or flesh-colored bumps on the skin. These bumps are shiny and usually on the face, especially the forehead and nose. They’re also small, usually between 2 and 4 millimeters wide, and painless.
People sometimes mistake sebaceous hyperplasia for basal cell carcinoma, which looks similar. Bumps from basal cell carcinoma are usually red or pink and much larger than those of sebaceous hyperplasia. Your doctor can do a biopsy of the bump to confirm whether you have sebaceous hyperplasia or basal cell carcinoma.
Sebaceous hyperplasia is most common in middle-aged or older people. People with fair skin — especially people who’ve had a lot sun exposure — are more likely to get it.
There’s also likely a genetic component. Sebaceous hyperplasia often happens to people with a family history of it. In addition, people with Muir-Torre syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that increases the risk of certain cancers, often develop sebaceous hyperplasia.
While sebaceous hyperplasia is almost always harmless, it can be a sign of a tumor in people with Muir-Torre syndrome.
People taking the immunosuppressant medication cyclosporine (Sandimmune) are also more likely to develop sebaceous hyperplasia.
Sebaceous hyperplasia doesn’t require treatment unless the bumps bother you.
To get rid of sebaceous hyperplasia, the affected sebaceous glands need to be removed. You may have to be treated more than once to fully remove the glands. There are several options for removing the glands or controlling sebum buildup:
- Electrocauterization: A needle with an electrical charge heats and vaporizes the bump. This forms a scab that eventually falls off. It may also cause some discoloration in the affected area.
- Laser therapy: A healthcare professional can use a laser to smooth the top layer of your skin and remove trapped sebum.
- Cryotherapy: A healthcare professional can freeze the bumps, causing them to easily fall off your skin. This option can also cause some discoloration.
- Retinol: When applied to the skin, this form of vitamin A can help reduce or prevent your sebaceous glands from clogging. You can get low-concentration retinol over the counter, but it’s most effective as a prescription medication called isotretinoin (Myorisan, Claravis, Absorica) for treating severe or extensive cases. Retinol needs to be applied for about two weeks to work. Sebaceous hyperplasia usually returns about a month after stopping treatment.
- Antiandrogen medications: Higher levels of testosterone seem to be a possible cause of sebaceous hyperplasia. Antiandrogen prescription medications lower testosterone and are a last-resort treatment for women only.
- Warm compress: Applying a warm compress or washcloth soaked in warm water on the bumps can help dissolve buildup. While this won’t get rid of sebaceous hyperplasia, it can make the bumps smaller and less noticeable.
There’s no way to prevent sebaceous hyperplasia, but you can reduce your risk of getting it. Washing your face with a cleanser that has salicylic acid or low levels of retinol can help prevent your sebaceous glands from clogging.
Sebaceous hyperplasia is linked to sun exposure, so staying out of the sun as much as possible can also help prevent it. When you’re out in the sun, use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and wear a hat to protect your scalp and face.
Sebaceous hyperplasia is harmless, but the bumps it causes can bother some people. Talk to your doctor or a dermatologist if you want to remove the bumps. They can help you find the right treatment option for your skin type.
Just keep in mind that you may have to do several rounds of treatment to see results, and when treatment stops, the bumps may return.