Sebaceous Cysts: What to Know and How to Treat Them

March 8, 2023
William Hanner D.O.

Finding a lump under your skin can raise immediate questions in your mind: What is it? What caused it? How dangerous is it? There are many causes of skin-related bumps, including what is known as a sebaceous cyst. These cysts can form when your sebaceous glands are not working smoothly, and they can be a source of discomfort.

Here is an overview on the sebaceous glands, how sebaceous cysts form, and what to do if you suspect you may have one.

What are sebaceous glands, and what is their importance?

Sebaceous glands are a part of the body’s hair follicles. These glands are found all over your body, including anywhere hair is present, including your head, face, neck, arms, legs, chin, forehead, back, genitals, and even your ear canals. 

What sebaceous glands do

These skin and hair glands produce and give off sebum, an oily substance that coats your skin to keep it from getting too dry. Normally, sebaceous glands form around your hair follicles, last for a week at a time, and then produce sebum as they disintegrate and are replaced by new glands.

The sebum, or oil, these glands secrete give the body a number of benefits, including keeping your skin from losing important moisture and protecting your skin from bacterial and fungal infections. 

What happens if my sebaceous glands stop working?

To function properly, sebaceous glands must be able to give off the sebum they are producing. But sometimes, these tiny glands can get clogged up. This is one reason why a proper skin and hair care routine is so important — it helps keep your sebaceous glands from getting blocked.

If the glands get blocked, a small, closed sac of fluid and dead skin cells may form under your skin. This is what is known as a sebaceous cyst, which is filled with sebum and skin cells that were unable to move through the gland duct and out of your skin.

How do sebaceous cysts form?

When the duct through which sebum passes gets blocked up, the related sebaceous gland will become clogged, and this is what causes a sebaceous cyst to form. Usually, a blocked duct is the result of some damage to the skin nearby, such as if you are injured with a skin wound (such as a scratch or cut), or you have a skin condition such as acne. There are also genetic conditions that can lead to sebaceous glands getting misshapen and clogged easily.  

What symptoms are common with a sebaceous cyst?

With a sebaceous cyst, the number one symptom you are likely to experience is a small lump beneath the surface of your skin. If it is a sebaceous cyst, it will likely appear like a small, slow-growing, yellow or white lump that is easily moved when you touch it. Normally, these cysts are not painful, though if the cyst area becomes inflamed or infected, it may be tender, red, or warm.

However, it is not always easy to distinguish a true sebaceous cyst from other cysts, lumps, or skin issues at first glance. This is because sebaceous cysts can appear similarly to numerous other, more common skin conditions, such as: 

  • Epidermoid cysts — These lumps (also called follicular infundibular cysts) are created by the skin, and may look similar to sebaceous cysts.
  • Keratin cysts — Keratin is a protein associated with skin growth. If the skin or hair follicles are damaged, the keratin may become trapped underneath the skin, forming a cyst.
  • Pilar cysts — These flesh-colored bumps are formed by the hair follicles.
  • Dermatofibromas — Firm bumps that form deep within the skin in response to an injury (such as an insect bite), and commonly found on the arms and legs
  • Folliculitis — An inflammation of the hair follicles, this condition shows up as a rash, white-head pimples, or pustules in hairy areas such as the neck or groin. It is frequently caused by friction and shaving. 
  • Keratosis Pilaris — This common condition features skin-colored, red, or brown spots in areas like the upper arms, thighs and cheeks. It is most common during the teenage years.
  • Lipomas — These are fatty lumps that form between layers of skin and muscle. They are slow-growing, typically form in middle age, and are not cancerous, but they may become painful.
  • Neurofibromas — This genetic condition of the brain and spinal cord can cause lumps to form on the body’s nerves, appearing like growths beneath the skin.
  • Malignant growths — Melanoma and other carcinomas, such as breast cancer, can form lumps in the body that may mimic conditions like sebaceous cysts. 
  • Gardner syndrome — A rare genetic condition, Gardner syndrome causes growths in the stomach and small intestine which must be treated. One symptom of this condition is the appearance of lumps under the skin.

Some of these skin cysts and conditions (such as a cancerous lump or Gardner syndrome) may need immediate treatment. So, it is vital to have any skin cysts and other skin issues properly evaluated by a medical professional.

Are sebaceous cysts dangerous for my health?

The good news is that sebaceous cysts are not often dangerous. However, they may cause annoying symptoms such as discomfort, may get infected, and in rare cases may even become cancerous. So, it is a good idea to have them checked by a trained medical professional (like our team) to assess your cyst, diagnose it properly, and provide treatment such as cyst removal if needed. 

How is a diagnosis made?

To determine if your skin lump is a sebaceous cyst, a different type of cyst, or even a cancerous growth, your healthcare provider will perform an examination and may order some tests, such as:

  • An ultrasound to assess the contents of the cyst, such as fluid
  • A punch biopsy, which removes a small amount of tissue from the cyst and sends it to the lab for examination and diagnosis
  • A CT scan, if it seems that your cyst may need to be surgically removed

How are sebaceous cysts treated?

In the case of small sebaceous cysts that are not growing and are not symptomatic, you may be able to simply let them be. Some cysts eventually go away on their own.

If the cyst is inflamed, treatment may involve injecting it with a steroid to reduce swelling and ease discomfort. For painful cysts, your physician may choose to drain the cyst of fluid, thus relieving the pain. Infected cysts may also need to be treated with antibiotics. 

If the cyst is large or growing in size, causing problems that make it hard for you to enjoy your normal lifestyle, the cyst may need to be completely removed. This type of procedure is done in an outpatient setting or doctor’s office with a local anesthetic to numb the skin while the cyst is excised (removed with a small, cookie-cutter like scalpel). 

Can I treat a sebaceous cyst at home?

Remember that sebaceous cysts can look similar to other skin issues that need treatment, such as a cancerous lump. So, you must have your healthcare provider do a proper diagnosis of your condition. If you attempt to drain or squeeze the cyst on your own, you could develop an infection, and the cyst could also grow back. So, if the cyst needs treatment, it is important to have it done within a doctor’s office.

Caring Diagnosis and Treatment for Skin Issues in Tulsa

If you have a skin lump, bump, or other skin-related issues that you have questions about, we are here to provide answers and treatment options that fit your individual situation. From diagnosis and screening to medical treatments, including outpatient solutions, our team will help you receive the care you require in a setting that is compassionate, comfortable, and affordable.

Related Services