When you find yourself peering in the 5x magnifying mirror to scrutinize your skin problems, you might have noticed a couple of different types of culprits that pop up on your face frequently and ruin your “flawless skin” status. You’ll either be frustrated by little black, white, or grey dots that are either raised or indented around your nose and forehead, or even just randomly around your face. If you have ever wondered what exactly causes these blemishes, or what the difference is between blackheads, whiteheads, or the little grey dots, here’s a run-down (my scientific explanation) of what they are, what causes them, and the differences between them.

To better understand the difference between blackheads, whiteheads, and a sebaceous filament, you need to understand the general composition of your skin and the definition of a sebaceous gland. Your skin made up of 3 different layers. The epidermis is the outermost layer of skin and provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone.  The dermis lies beneath the epidermis and contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands. The deeper subcutaneous tissue is called the hypodermis and is the inner most layer and made of fat and connective tissue.  The epidermis layer is covered in tiny little hairs, usually referred to as “peach fuzz” when describing the short, tiny, thin haired layer covering your face.  The dermis is the middle layer that grows the hair follicle and contains the hair root and the sebaceous glands. A sebaceous gland is a small gland in the skin that secretes a lubricating oily substance (sebum) into the hair follicles to lubricate the skin and hair.

That oily substance (or sebum) joins with your body’s natural triglycerides, wax esters and squalene, to create sebaceous filaments. A sebaceous filament is not a form of acne but a naturally occurring part of your skin’s system designed to bring oil to the skin. When oil forms around a hair follicle, the oil within the follicle fills the pore, making it look darker and more prominent; which is why many people confuse them for blackheads. But unlike a blackhead which is raised, sebaceous filaments lay flat against the skin.  For people with oily skin or enlarged pores, sebaceous filaments can look just as visible and prominent as blackheads, although sebaceous filaments are typically more light grey or tan, rather than black.

So What is a Blackhead?

Blackheads are a plug of sebum in a hair follicle, darkened by oxidation.  They form at the surface of your skin when things like dead skin, excess dirt and oils, or cosmetic build-up get into your pores and plug them up when that pore is producing even normal amounts of sebum. A blackhead gets its name because of the material clogging the pore oxidizing when exposed to air and turning black. While many people try to extract their own blackheads by squeezing them, DON’T.  This can spread around the bacteria and cause great damage to the skin, including adhesion and scarring.  Instead, make an appointment to see a professional that is skilled and trained in the best methods of extraction. It is best to have blackheads removed fairly early on otherwise they will continue to grow larger in size.

Now whiteheads also form when a pore gets blocked with dead skin cells and oils, but the difference between whiteheads and blackheads is that the top of the pore is closed in a whitehead, and open in a blackhead.

The best prevention for all three is preventing your pores from clogging in the first place. While sebaceous filaments are not a form of acne, some people still want to minimize their visibility  and can do so with treatments that can be customized by a skin care professional. Blackheads and whiteheads can both be treated by extraction and treatments performed by a qualified skincare specialist, as well as through a consistent skincare routing using products that best address the root of the problem.

Jamie Ortiz of Tru Skin Rituals is a licensed esthetician, healthy skin advocate, age management strategist, and authority on corrective skin care and designer waxing services.