That thing inside of humans that gives us the urge to want to pop things should be curtailed sometimes. As tempting as it is to want to make a pimple go bye-bye, bursting one is not always the wisest course of action.

That’s because a pimple isn’t always a pimple. Sebaceous cysts are commonly mistaken for acne blemishes, but they are a different breed. Unlike a zit that sits atop your skin and clogs up pores, a sebaceous (or epidermoid) cyst lies under your skin.

They’re unattractive, painful, and like to squat for weeks or months at a time. This video from Wochit highlights a piece by Allure magazine that explains the difference between the two skin ailments. Sebaceous cysts can appear on your neck, face, ears, or back, but topical acne treatments typically won’t get rid of them.

These cysts are formed when keratin fluid gets trapped near a damaged follicle or blocked duct under the skin. For some people, no pain, no harm, and no foul will occur. For others, removing them is a matter of cosmetic or pain relief.

But to do that, regular zit-busting techniques have to be shelved. In some cases, the cysts are harmless and will go away by themselves. However, dermatologists recommend scheduling a visit for an extraction. Depending on the severity, treatment for an infection may also be necessary.

A dermatologist’s procedure usually involves a local anesthetic, drainage of the cyst, and then removal of the sac. Severe cases may entail laser surgery. In mild cases, your doctor may provide a steroid injection to reduce its size.

To care for it at home, don’t pop it! You can treat it by keeping the area clean and using hot water compresses. Place the compress over the cyst for about 20 minutes, twice a day, to reduce inflammation.

During that period, it should slowly start to drain on its own. Cover it with a bandage to prevent a bacterial infection. Avoid squeezing these cysts because that can cause scarring or infection. If the infection spreads, the trapped bacteria can cause a new cyst (or smaller cysts) to form. Thus, a vicous cycle will be born.

If you notice a pimple-like growth under your skin that’s sore or tender, and it’s located on the neck, trunk, scalp, or ear area, see a doctor to be sure. In case you’re still unsure if that’s what you have, here are some signs that you may have a sebaceous cyst:

  • Pea-sized bump lodged under the skin
  • Lump under skin that is draining pus or fluid, is red, or is painful
  • Foul-smelling drainage from site
  • Small bump that is growing slowly, or ruptures and keeps coming back in the same spot

As mentioned, some people will have sebaceous cysts that are painless and disappear on their own. See a doctor if you’re experiencing pain, redness, swelling, or if the growth catches on your clothing. Any signs of infection like a foul odor should also be examined and treated by a physician.

Have you ever had a sebaceous cyst that required a doctor’s intervention? Did you confuse it for a pimple or boil?


Cleveland Clinic