Sebaceous Cysts - Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Sebaceous Cysts are soft lumps which grow underneath the skin. They are caused by damage or blockage to the sebaceous glands, which produce the oil that coats our skin and hair. They’re normally painless and are no cause for concern. If you suffer from a skin condition such as acne, you may be more likely to develop Sebaceous Cysts. If they become particularly large or uncomfortable, or if you are self-conscious of them, they can be surgically removed.

Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Development

Medically reviewed by

Dr Babak Ashrafi

Last reviewed: 21 Mar 2023

What Are Sebaceous Cysts?

Sebaceous Cysts are soft, liquid-filled lumps that grow under the skin. They are not harmful and usually do not need to be removed unless they are causing discomfort. They can occur anywhere on the body but are most common on the face/head, neck, and torso. Sebaceous Cysts are caused when the glands responsible for the oil in your skin and hair become blocked or damaged.

How common are Sebaceous Cysts?

Sebaceous Cysts are relatively common, with roughly 1 in 5 adults experiencing them at some point in their lives.

What Are the Symptoms of Sebaceous Cysts?

Sebaceous Cysts will usually cause no additional symptoms beyond the cysts themselves. In some circumstances, they may:

  • become infected - causing them to become red, inflamed and painful. In this situation, it is typical to treat them with antibiotics.
  • cause discharge - usually indicating that the cyst has been punctured or damaged. This may increase the chances of it becoming infected.
  • grow a small horn or spike - often due to an overproduction of keratin, a protein which affects hair growth. This is usually no cause for concern, but it is best to let your doctor know if you experience this or any other change to your cyst.

What are the early signs of Sebaceous Cysts?

Sebaceous Cysts are difficult to spot early since they are caused by damage or blockage of the sebaceous gland (the gland which produces the oil that coats your skin and hair). Scratches, surgical wounds, or skin conditions such as acne can cause trauma which allows Sebaceous Cysts to grow. They grow slowly, so the trigger for their growth may have happened several weeks or months before you start to notice the cyst.

What do Sebaceous Cysts look like?

Sebaceous Cysts occur under the skin and are visible only as soft lumps on the face or body. They are often pea-sized, but can grow to be a few centimetres in diameter. They will usually have a small hole in the middle called a central punctum.

Sebaceous Cysts may occasionally turn red or start to produce discharge. This is a sign that the cyst has become infected. In this circumstance, you should speak to your doctor.

What do Sebaceous Cysts feel like?

Sebaceous Cysts are soft, smooth lumps under the skin which move freely when touched. They are usually painless but may cause some discomfort if they are particularly large.

How long do Sebaceous Cysts last?

Sebaceous Cysts do not usually disappear on their own. Since they are typically harmless, it is quite common to ignore them unless they are causing you discomfort.

Sebaceous Cysts complications

Most Sebaceous Cysts will not develop any complications. If bacteria enter the cyst, then it can become infected, and you may be prescribed a course of antibiotics.

In very rare cases, a cyst can connect to the tissue beneath it and become hard and immovable. In this circumstance, the cyst will normally be surgically removed.

When should I talk to a doctor about my Sebaceous Cysts?

Sebaceous Cysts are usually harmless and do not require attention from a doctor. However, if you do discover any lumps or changes to your skin, you should always speak to a doctor to make sure it’s nothing more serious.

Sometimes sebaceous cysts may become infected or, in rare cases, cause other complications. You should speak to your doctor if your cyst:

  • shows signs of infection, such as redness, pain, or discharge
  • grows larger than 5cm in diameter
  • produces a horn or spike on the surface of the skin
  • becomes hard or immovable
  • comes back very quickly after being removed

What Causes Sebaceous Cysts?

Sebaceous Cysts develop from the sebaceous gland. This gland produces sebum (the oil which coats our skin and hair). If it gets blocked or damaged, it can cause a buildup of keratin (a protein which affects hair growth), and a Sebaceous Cyst can form. This will normally take place due to trauma to the area, such as a scratch, surgical wound, or skin condition like acne.

What increases your risk of Sebaceous Cysts?

There are no lifestyle, dietary, or medicinal choices which are proven to increase your risk of experiencing Sebaceous Cysts.

Certain skin conditions, such as acne, can cause trauma to your skin which may increase the likelihood of a cyst developing.

How Are Sebaceous Cysts Diagnosed?

Sebaceous Cysts can often be diagnosed by a physical examination carried out by a doctor. If your cyst has properties which are unusual then a tissue sample may be collected in order to rule out other conditions. This may also be required if you request surgery to have your cyst removed.

How Are Sebaceous Cysts Treated?

Sebaceous Cysts are often harmless and do not require treatment. If they are particularly large or uncomfortable, or if you are unhappy with the way they look, then they can be drained or fully removed by your doctor. This can normally be performed under a local anaesthetic but this can cause scarring. You should never try to pop or remove a Sebaceous Cyst yourself. This can cause you pain and increase the risk of an infection developing. There are no over-the-counter or prescription treatments for Sebaceous Cysts, but you may be prescribed a course of antibiotics if one becomes infected.

How to Prevent Sebaceous Cysts

Since there is no proven biological factor which causes them to be more likely, there is little that can be done to prevent sebaceous cysts from developing. If you have acne, then keeping your skin clean and moisturised will lower the chances of this initial trauma taking place, but will not fully eliminate the risk.

What Skin Conditions Are Similar to Sebaceous Cysts?

There are a number of skin conditions which may be confused with or misdiagnosed as Sebaceous Cysts. These include:

  • epidermoid cysts - which are caused instead by a buildup of skin cells
  • pilar cysts - which develop in the lining of hair follicles
  • lipoma - a non-cancerous mass of fatty tissue
  • abscesses - a collection of pus underneath the skin, usually caused by a bacterial infection

These conditions will often have additional symptoms which can be used to identify them.

Symptoms which are typical of epidermoid cysts include:

  • a small blackhead plugging the opening of the cyst
  • redness or swelling
  • yellow discharge which may smell

Symptoms which are typical of pilar cysts include:

  • dome shaped bumps which are firm but smooth
  • growth taking place on the surface of the skin, rather than underneath

Symptoms which are typical of lipoma include:

  • soft and squishy lumps under the skin
  • easy movement when pressed

Symptoms which are typical of abscesses include:

  • pain in the affected area
  • high temperature
  • general feeling of unwell

If you are unsure whether you are experiencing one of the conditions listed above then you should speak to your doctor.


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