Sebaceous Cysts vs. Acne: Identification, Treatment, and Prevention

Doctor touching a patient's shoulder Sebaceous Cysts vs. Acne: Identification, Treatment, and Prevention

Sebaceous cysts are a very common type of cyst that resembles acne in both appearance and cause. Making sense of the skin condition you have and differentiating it from acne are important steps in getting the right treatment for a sebaceous cyst.

How to Tell a Sebaceous Cyst from Acne

Sebaceous cysts and acne have almost identical origin stories, but it’s their other symptoms that give insight on which is which. Acne and sebaceous cysts start in the sebaceous glands—glands within the skin responsible for the creation of sebum or oil. Oil plays an important role in our skin’s barrier to outside contaminants like water and germs, but sometimes the glands become blocked. When the sebaceous gland is blocked, it can slowly form a sebaceous cyst, but it can also develop into acne. Acne and sebaceous cysts are common on the face, back, neck and shoulders because these are areas where sebaceous glands are most plentiful. From here, acne and sebaceous cysts take branching paths, which are key for telling the difference between each. A sebaceous cyst will grow into a moveable, sometimes significantly large (up to two inches in diameter) mass beneath the skin. Sebaceous cysts can grow and develop in weeks, months or even years. Acne, on the other hand, is characterized by smaller, more conical-shaped growths, often with a visible whitehead. A whitehead is the visible sebum or pus that has built up within a pimple. Sebaceous cysts are much deeper beneath the skin, and they can sometimes discolor the skin. While sebaceous cysts can eventually develop something that looks like a whitehead, it takes much longer, and they’re often a lot larger than acne. Sebaceous cysts are usually isolated to a single growth in an area, while acne usually occurs in clusters or in problem areas in groups called ‘breakouts.’ Both sebaceous cysts and acne have the potential to become inflamed and redden surrounding skin. If you experience this with any skin growth, it’s a sign of possible infection and should be examined.

Treating Sebaceous Cysts and Acne

Since a sebaceous cyst is a self-contained growth of accumulated sebum and pus, it needs very different treatment than acne. Acne can be treated in a number of ways, including oral and topical medication as well as things like laser or light therapy. Sebaceous cysts often don’t require treatment, as they can resolve on their own. They are also benign, meaning they are not cancerous and pose almost no health risks. Sometimes, though, there are exceptions. If a sebaceous cyst grows to a size that impedes a body part from moving (rare with sebaceous cysts due to their location) or becomes inflamed and infected, it should be treated. Additionally, if they are in visible areas, they can be unsightly and the need for treatment is purely cosmetic. Your dermatologist will first drain the cyst to remove it, and depending on its location and size, this process can vary from using a syringe to making a simple incision with a sterile instrument. The pus is then drained from the cyst, and the structure of the cyst will need to be removed. If a cyst’s structure is left, it is very likely that it will re-form. Once that is done, your sebaceous cyst should be gone for good. Though it’s very important to keep in mind that if you develop a sebaceous cyst, you’re more likely to have another sometime in your life.

Preventing Sebaceous Cysts

There are not a lot of ways to prevent sebaceous cysts from forming, as they are not the result of poor hygiene or anything a person can control. There is one interesting exception, however. For some people with severe acne, they might also develop sebaceous cysts. A person who has experienced severe acne will recognize that the sebaceous cyst they developed is unlike the acne they have, and they’ll no doubt have questions. The only way to prevent sebaceous cysts for people with moderate to severe acne is to treat your acne and keep it under control with medication. Popular acne medications like isotretinoin may be necessary for some people with acne that is severe, and this drug helps prevent the formation of sebaceous cysts.

Ultimately, sebaceous cysts and acne have a lot in common but take their form in very different ways. If you’re struggling with either, seeking a dermatologist’s help will take a lot off your plate. Make the call and reach out to the experts you can trust at Northeast Dermatology Associates today.

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