Basically, the sebaceous glands—which accompany every hair follicle on the body—create an oily liquid (sebum) that, when mixed with dead skin cells and bacteria, plugs the pore, says dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD. "Sebum plugs are essentially the foundation of our blackheads and whiteheads, and often even our painful cysts," she says.
Dr. Nazarian describes them as "thin waxy strands" (when pulled from the pore), which are typically light in color but turn dark upon oxidation—which is why they're then called blackheads. In fact, Dr. Zeichner admits the distinction between the two is not all that solid. "The definition is definitely a gray zone, and it is not clear whether it differs from a true blackhead," he says. Regardless, sebum plugs can be found anywhere on the body, though they typically plague people on the nose, chin, and forehead.
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Common medicinal topicals are the best treatment option for sebum plugs. "Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that helps remove excess oil and exfoliate dead cells from the surface of the skin," says Dr. Zeichner. "It can help keep the pores clear." To treat an individual spot, he recommends using a leave-on salicylic acid 2 percent spot treatment, like Clean & Clear's Advantage Spot Treatment ($10). Dr. Nazarian also recommends use of glycolic acid and retinoids, and says that if all else fails, a board-certified dermatologist can gently and safely remove them without injuring the tissue. "If you have a large plug or a blockage, it may be removed using a comedone extractor in your dermatologist’s office," Dr. Zeichner agrees.
If you never want to think about the words "sebum plug" again after reading this article, preventive measures can be taken to avoid having to face them in the mirror. "Regular use of hydroxy acid cleansers can help exfoliate dead cells and keep the pores clear," Dr. Zeichner. For this purpose, he recommends Ghost Democracy's Transparent Daily Exfoliating Cleanser ($24), which contains a combo of glycolic and mandelic acid along with willow bark extract, a natural form of salicylic acid.
Dr. Nazarian prefers retinoids for the purpose of decreasing both oil production and the size of the sebaceous glands; however, there's a caveat to her recommendation. "If overused, the sebaceous gland's activity can decrease too much, and skin can become too dry—so use sparingly," she says.
That's all for today's lesson, folks! Sorry that you can't un-hear "sebum plugs."
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