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Identifying and Treating Sebaceous Cysts and Acne

Our skin is porous for a reason. Without pores, our bodies would have no natural way of cooling themselves down, and our skin would easily dry out. Of course, pores aren’t purely positive. As is the case with any type of opening, pores can become clogged by a variety of substances, most of which are naturally produced by the body, like dead skin cells, hair, and oil. And when pores become blocked, some type of acne tends to follow, usually in the form of a whitehead or blackhead.

Of course, minor pimples may not be your only concern. Large, deep, red bumps known as sebaceous cysts can also result from deeply backed up pores. Sebaceous cysts can sometimes resemble other skin issues, and some pimples might resemble sebaceous cysts. While these skin conditions are related, they carry different implications, and they must be treated somewhat differently.

So, it’s important to point out what’s a pimple and what’s a sebaceous cyst. Here we’ll go over how to identify sebaceous cysts and acne, and what to do about both types of unwanted bumps.

Cysts vs. Acne: What’s the Difference?

The relationship between cysts and acne is somewhat complicated. While they are two distinct categories of skin conditions, there is occasional overlap. Cysts refer to closed sacs on the skin containing some kind of material, whether liquid or solid. They might be caused by a bacterial infection, injury, insect bite, skin condition, or genetic disease. Some different types of cysts include epidermoid cysts (keratin-filled bumps on the outer layer of skin), ovarian cysts, pilar cysts (a type of benign skin cyst near the scalp), chalazia (cysts on the eyelids), and, of course, sebaceous cysts.

Acne, on the other hand, is caused by overactive sebaceous glands (the glands that produce oil). This excess of oils and cells can block pores and lead to whiteheads and blackheads, which are attached to the skin’s surface. Sebaceous cysts, while classified as cysts, are often tied directly to acne. This is because they’re formed out of sebaceous glands, the same location acne forms. Indeed, acne is a primary cause of sebaceous cysts, and the two are often accompanied by one another. Sebaceous cysts often form on the scalp, face, neck, and/or back.

Acne and Sebaceous Cysts: Telling the Two Apart

It’s worth noting that other trauma, such as scratches or surgical wounds, can also trigger a sebaceous cyst. Still, regardless of cause, these deep growths often resemble acne. The main visible difference is that sebaceous cysts are usually larger, lack a whitehead, and are trapped deeper underneath the skin. This means that, unlike average pimples, they’re not directly attached to the skin’s surface, and that attempting to pop them often leads to further, deeper infection.

So, when determining whether a growth is a pimple or a sebaceous cyst, look for a whitehead. It’s true that some pimples feature smaller whiteheads that form slowly, but sebaceous cysts will never form a whitehead. Also, examine the size of the growth. If it’s larger than a pea, it might indicate a cyst rather than acne. Sebaceous cysts can also be more painful than normal acne because they’re deeper in the skin. If you experience pain without even touching the growth, it might be a cyst. And lastly, sebaceous cysts stick around longer than pimples, so if you’ve had one of these growths for weeks, months, or longer, it’s most likely a cyst.

As always, if you’re looking for a proper diagnosis of your skin conditions, see your dermatologist. They can usually tell after performing a physical examination. They might also run a number of tests (such as CT scans, ultrasounds, and biopsies) to determine whether it’s a benign cyst to help rule out cancer.

Treating Sebaceous Cysts vs. Treating Acne

Once you know whether you have acne, sebaceous cysts, or both, it’s time to take proper action. As mentioned earlier, each type of growth requires its own type of treatment.

While it’s never advisable to pop a pimple, it’s especially off-limits for sebaceous cysts. The lack of a whitehead means that the cyst is not attached to the skin’s surface. In other words, there are no easy means of escape for the material inside. Applying pressure to the cyst will push the material downward, aggravating your skin and worsening the issue.

With “popping” off the table, let’s go over some viable treatments for both acne and sebaceous cysts. Clearing up acne may involve cleansing or exfoliating the skin, moderating one’s hormone production, fighting bacteria, and/or extracting the material causing the blockage.

Acne treatment options include:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Retinoids
  • Antibiotics
  • Contraceptives (for hormone control)
  • Anti-androgen drugs
  • Isotretinoin
  • Professional extraction
  • Phototherapy
  • Chemical peels
  • Steroids

In most cases, dermatologists and doctors will recommend removing the cyst entirely via surgical means. This helps ensure that the cyst does not come back. Keep in mind that draining a cyst in the following ways is much different from pimple-popping, and these methods can lead to scarring.

Sebaceous cyst treatment/removal options include:

  • Conventional wide excision (often causes some scarring)
  • Minimal excision (usually minimal scarring)
  • Laser with punch biopsy excision (creates a hole in the skin to facilitate drainage)

Following the removal procedure, you may be directed to apply an antibiotic ointment to the wound to avoid infection, and/or scar cream to minimize scarring.

Need help identifying and treating your acne or sebaceous cysts? Premier Dermatology Partners can help. To learn more about our providers and all the services we offer, contact us today.

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