While you might not know them by name, anyone who's struggled with their skin will recognise a sebum plug.
These pesky little bumps appear in the early stages of a breakout, before blossoming into more noticeable blackheads and whiteheads that can cause serious irritation, discomfort and even pain.
Luckily, there are some things you can do to reduce the occurrence of sebum plugs and prevent them from developing into pimples further down the line.
Whether you're experiencing occasional outbreaks or persistent acne, addressing the sebum plugs is often the first step towards clearer skin. Here, we'll explain the causes of sebum plugs and explore the options for preventing them.
What are sebum plugs?
First things first: sebum is an oily substance produced by the body's sebaceous glands (aka your pores). Despite its bad reputation when it comes to breakouts, sebum production is a natural bodily function and plays an essential role in moisturising and protecting the skin.
Sebum itself is composed of a mixture of fats, oils, and waxes. The main ingredient is a type of lipid called triglyceride, which is the most common fat found in the body. Additionally, sebum contains other substances like squalene, which features in a bunch of skincare products.
The specific composition of sebum can vary from person to person and even in different areas of the body, but its purpose is to act like a protective coating that locks in moisture, preventing our skin from drying out, as well as keeping out irritants, allergens and pollutants.
It even has antimicrobial powers that can fight off bacteria and fungi, so sebum is actually pretty cool!
The glands on your face, neck, chest and back usually produce the most sebum, but hormonal changes and ageing can impact the process. Unfortunately, sometimes the sebaceous glands overproduce sebum, which can lead to the skin feeling extra oily or shiny.
Acne tends to become more manageable after the age of 25 as sebum production decreases, but some people are blessed with youthful-looking (and more acne-prone) skin well into their thirties.
The main issue with excess sebum is that, when combined with dead skin cells, it can clog your pores. In these situations, sebum plugs can form, especially on the forehead, chin and nose.
If a sebum plug continues to develop, it will turn into a blackhead, whitehead or another pimple. Initially, a sebum plug looks and feels like a small bump under the skin, but if the follicle becomes contaminated with bacteria it can become inflamed and painful.
What causes sebum plugs?
Some people naturally produce more sebum than others, making them more prone to clogged pores. Counterintuitively, sudden excess sebum production is often triggered by drying out your skin.
Whether as a result of sun exposure or harsh chemicals, dry skin causes your sebaceous glands to work harder and produce more sebum to compensate. Research has found that increased pore size is associated with higher sebum production, too .
At the other end of the spectrum, not properly cleansing your skin can also allow sebum plugs to develop into breakouts. For those with blemish-prone skin, cleansing in the morning and at night can make a big difference.
It's important to avoid any makeup or skincare products that are comedogenic, or pore-clogging, for your skin — opt for non-comedogenic products where possible. Pollution, humidity, and excessive sweating can also play a role in the formation of sebum plugs.
What does a sebum plug look like?
Sebum plugs usually start out white or yellowish in colour but can turn darker if the pore is open and they are exposed to air.
They can occur anywhere on the body, but usually form on the face, scalp, chest and back because that is where we produce the most sebum. They can be more noticeable in areas where the skin is tight and delicate, like the nose.
If left untreated, sebum plugs can then develop into a whitehead or a blackhead. A whitehead is a closed pimple that forms when a sebum plug blocks a hair follicle or pore beneath the skin's surface. Whiteheads are typically smooth and may be surrounded by inflamed or red skin.
Sebum plugs vs blackheads
A blackhead is just an open pimple where the sebum plug has been exposed to air. It appears as a small dark or black bump on the skin's surface. The dark colour or black dot is not due to dirt but rather the oxidisation of the sebum and dead skin cells within the pore.
Both whiteheads and blackheads can be mild or more pronounced, depending on the skin condition and the amount of sebum and dead skin cells involved. They may occur individually or in clusters, and they can be more noticeable in areas with larger pores, oily skin, or areas prone to acne breakouts.
Keratin plugs are another type of clogged pores that can be confused with sebum plugs. A keratin plug is a small, often hardened mass that forms when the protein accumulates and blocks a hair follicle or pore. Keratin plugs are associated with skin conditions like keratosis pilaris or 'chicken skin'.
They are often found in areas with numerous hair follicles, such as the face, back, chest, arms, or thighs. These plugs can contribute to the development of small bumps, rough texture, or skin congestion.
Sebum plugs on scalp vs face
Of course, the sebaceous glands on our scalp can also become clogged around the hair follicles, especially around the hairline. Excess sebum on the scalp can form a white or yellowish residue, but can also become flaky and resemble dandruff or eczema.
Sebum plugs on the scalp can usually be easily treated, but it might be worth investigating with your healthcare provider if you're noticing more hair falling out than usual — keep in mind it’s normal to lose 50-100 strands of hair per day .
If you're concerned about your hair thinning or shedding, there could be a range of underlying causes. A family history of female pattern hair loss, stress, age, hormones and smoking can all contribute to hair loss.
Treatment options contains ingredients proven to strengthen and regrow the hair follicles.
Is it OK to pull out sebum plugs?
You've probably heard that squeezing or picking at a pimple is not a great idea, and the same goes for sebum plugs. By squeezing, you can push the contents deeper into the skin or break the pimple open, which allows the bacteria inside the pimple to spread and any bacteria on your hands to enter the pore.
Squeezing pimples can also cause inflammation and damage to the surrounding healthy skin, resulting in more pronounced scarring. Plus, when you pick at your skin it can disrupt its natural healing process and actually result in a longer healing time.
If you're noticing a stringy or hair-like structure coming out of your pore when you squeeze, that's likely a sebaceous filament rather than a sebum plug. Unlike sebum plugs, sebaceous filaments are not blocked or clogged in any way.
These filaments act as little channels that allow the sebum to travel from the sebaceous glands to the surface of our skin. Sometimes, when the sebum is exposed to air, it reacts and becomes a darker colour.
Even if you squeeze sebaceous filaments, the sebum will return to the surface of the skin. It's impossible to get rid of sebaceous filaments long-term, they're just a natural part of our skin.
However, gentle skincare practices like regular cleansing and exfoliating can help keep your pores clear and minimise any buildup of sebum, oil or dead skin cells around the sebaceous filaments.
How do you get rid of sebum plugs?
It's important to take good care of your skin to prevent sebum plugs. This includes washing your face regularly with a gentle cleanser, exfoliating to remove dead, skin cells and bacteria, and using non-comedogenic products that won't clog your pores.
Eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep can also contribute to your skin's health .
Software's Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash is a gentle exfoliating wash that can be used 2-3 times a week to treat sebum plugs. It targets acne-causing bacteria and is formulated for all skin types.
And, it can also be used on the neck, chest and back, as well as the fact, to help clear away excess oil, bacteria and dead skin cells.
If you need something a little more comprehensive, Software’s prescription acne treatment offers a personalised formula developed by your online health practitioner.
Our formulas use medical-grade ingredients to treat acne for good thanks to the power of prescription retinoids, niacinamide, azelaic acid and hyaluronic acid. Simply complete our online consult with an Australian practitioner and they'll create a personalised prescription formula just for you.
Despite the fact that it may feel like your skin has a mind of its own, a daily skincare routine consisting of gentle cleansing, moisturising and SPF application should help decrease any sebum issues.
Adding in a chemical exfoliator, like salicylic acid or glycolic acid, a couple of times a week will help clear out any dead skin and keep your face looking its best. As always, your practitioner will be able to offer the best advice to address persistent skin concerns.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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Software for ageing concerns, June 2022
Software for ageing concerns, June 2022