When you hang out in skincare communities as much as I do, you eventually see lots of questions about totally normal skin features, such as the one I want to talk about today: the blackheads on your nose. These are frequently described as “sebaceous filaments,” though this is not a medical condition or diagnosis and only gained popularity in the 2000s through skincare boards and communities. It is also important to note that they are not oil glands (sebaceous glands), which are deep in the dermis and excrete sebum along the hair follicle, which finds it’s way to the surface of the skin.
Cosmetic chemist KindofStephen notes:
The term sebaceous filament likely originates from around 1912 by French dermatologist Sabouraud quoted in the Journal of Cutaneous Diseases Including Syphilis where it is quoted as “seborrhoeal filaments” and presumably translated to sebaceous filament.
It’s then referenced 12 years later as sebaceous filaments in a paper by Rulison in the Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology.
These of course are looking at seborrhoel or sebaceous filaments of the scalp, but a German paper published in 1976 under Follikel-Filamente examined ones found in the skin. Sebaceous filament was then mentioned by David Whiting in his 1979 review on acne, before making its way into a book by Plewig and Kligman in 1993.
In many textbooks microcomedone, impactions, follicular casts, follicular filaments or just the contents of the infundibulum (the pore opening above the sebaceous gland) are also used to describe them.
If you do a Google Scholar search for the term “Sebaceous Filament” you only get about 15 hits, a University of Toronto literature search only returns 7.
While they are not explicitly comedones, they are usually found in places rich in microcomedones, which can turn into open comedones (or blackheads). Perhaps the most common location for them is the nose, chin, and forehead, where people tend to feel the most self-conscious due to the central location. They frequently appear as an open pore with oil enveloping a vellus hair (the fine, baby hair all over our body that appears during puberty). When extracted, cylindrical tubes of sebum are expressed, which contain all of the makeup of your hair follicles – sebum, dead skin cells, bacteria, microflora, and sometimes the small vellus hair.
The primary difference between these “sebaceous filaments” and blackheads is that they are not inflammatory in nature, are typically uniform in size, and don’t extract as a hard plug or “grain.” On some people, they can appear larger, while on others they may be smaller.
These openings never quite go away, though they can appear smaller or lighter.
Regardless of what you want to call them, many people are uncomfortable with this feature of the skin. If you’re bothered by their appearance, here are some guidelines to follow to do just that:
- Try a BHA. Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid is my weapon of choice, as it is oil-soluble and can break down sebum sitting inside of our pores, effectively “cleaning them out.” Adjust this as needed — some people need AHAs instead of BHAs, and some people can tolerate much higher percentages of AHA on areas like their nose than the rest of the skin. It is okay to apply products to only one area of your skin. I do this all of the time with my actives, since my rosacea makes my skin a lot more sensitive in some places as opposed to others.
- For a quick fix, try a clay mask. If you have an event coming up, try a mild clay mask to soak up some of the sebum on your skin. Depending on the strength of the mask (Aztec Indian Clay Mask is very, very strong and can actually be a bit uncomfortable to wear), do this up to a night before so your nose isn’t red before the big event. I recommend being careful with clay masks if your skin is very sensitive, such as people with rosacea or dehydrated skin.
- Keep pore strip usage to a minimum. While frequently recommended against due to the idea that they can “stretch the pore, making it larger,” there is no scientific literature that confirms that this occurs. Instead, make sure you keep usage to a minimum – KindofStephen recommends only once a week – and that your skin is in top shape before use. This means avoiding use shortly after introducing an AHA or retinoid into your routine, or scrubbing your skin or masking.
- Try a moisturizer with urea and/or HA. Many people have good luck with low percentage urea moisturizers and HA serums, finding that they reduce the size and appearance of the filaments. I recommend several in my dehydrated skin post.
- Gently massage your oiliest areas a little longer with cleanser at night. I always spend a couple extra seconds gently working cleanser into my oily areas, like my nose, chin, and forehead.
- Breathe. No one is looking at your nose when they talk to you, nor are they as close to your skin as you’re probably getting when you’re staring at yourself in front of a mirror. If you’re feeling worried, stand back 3 – 6 feet from a mirror. This is how close most people will be to you.