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What’s the Difference Between Acne and Sebaceous Cysts?

Last updated: Dec 18, 2022 Post in Dermatology In Downtown Brooklyn by Century Medical & Dental Clinic.

Do not let acne and its ugly effects ruin your skin and shake your confidence. Schedule an appointment with experienced and board-certified dermatologists at the Century Medical and Dental Center to learn the type of acne you are suffering from, its causes, and get the proper treatment that targets your specific symptoms. The top-rated skincare doctors help you differentiate between acne and sebaceous cysts, the deep, painful lumps under the skin that can be very painful and last for months. With the help of a healthcare provider, you can look forward to getting the best advice on getting rid of acne or the deeper, painful lumps and enjoy healthy skin as a part of your overall wellness plan.

Acne is characterized by small, more conical-shaped growths, often with a visible whitehead. A sebaceous cyst, on the other hand, will grow into a moveable, large mass beneath the skin. These cysts can grow and develop in weeks, months, or even years.

Cysts are different from acne as they involve deep, painful lumps under the skin called skin nodules or sebaceous cysts. The sebaceous cysts are larger than the pimples and papules in mild acne and often last for months.

Differentiating Between Acne and Sebaceous Cysts

Acne typically occurs when oil and dead skin cells get trapped in pores and hair follicles. Certain kinds of bacteria may contribute to the development of acne. It can appear almost anywhere on the body. Face, forehead, chest, upper back, and shoulders are the most common areas where acne strikes. It is easily identified by the presence of pimples, whiteheads, blackheads, papules, (pustules), and nodules.

Unlike acne, spotting sebaceous cysts is not easy as they do not appear over the skin surface like pimples. They are formed when keratin fluid is trapped near a damaged hair follicle or a blocked duct underneath the skin. As the cysts are not closer to the outermost layer of the skin like the acne, they cannot be popped like them. Picking or scratching a cyst could do more harm than good and leave a permanent scar.

They appear like a dome-shaped bump that is firm and relatively mobile but does not appear over the skin. These cysts are present on the scalp, face, neck, and back.

What Is Acne?

Acne is a skin condition that results when your hair follicles become plugged with oil and dead skin cells. It is recognized by skin blemishes that include whiteheads, blackheads, pimples, papules and cysts, and nodules that appear on the skin. These blemishes usually appear on the upper part of the body including the face, neck, chest, upper back, and shoulders. Even when they disappear, they often leave brown spots or scars on the skin.

Whiteheads, blackheads, pimples, and pustules caused by acne eventually heal on their own. The body either absorbs them or sends them to the skin surface where they get drained. Acne is most common among teenagers, though it affects people of all ages.

Causes of Acne

The body has sebaceous or oil glands that are attached to the hair follicles. The more the hair follicle, the more the sebaceous glands such as on the face, shoulders, upper back, and shoulders where acne occurs. Changes in hormone levels can cause the body to produce more oil, increasing the likelihood of acne formation.

Other causes include:

  • Diet
  • Stress
  • Genetic factors
  • Environmental factors

When pores get clogged by excess skin cells that the body is trying to shed, it mixes with the oil from the sebaceous glands and gets stuck. It leads to the formation of whiteheads and blackheads. They usually heal on their own in a short time.

Sometimes bacteria present on the skin can get inside these pores, causing redness and inflammation. If the whitehead or blackhead bursts inside the follicle, it creates a sac of yellow or white pus that is surrounded by inflammation and redness. These are pimples and papules.


Acne can be treated with care and a lifestyle change. Mild or non-inflammatory acne that consists of whiteheads and blackheads can be relieved with over-the-counter topical toners, creams, and cleansers. They consist of salicylic acid, which exfoliates the skin, getting rid of the dead skin cells that can clog your pores.

Inflammatory acne or breakout of pimples and papules needs proper treatment. You may need professional help to have your skin screened to get the best advice on treating acne. Skin experts recommend oral or topical medicines with benzoyl peroxide, which helps kill the bacteria on your skin and reduce inflammation. Oral antibiotics such as tetracycline also help to treat irritation.

Nodules or sebaceous cysts need medical care, and you must see a dermatologist fight the infection under the skin.

Other acne treatments include:

  • Laser treatments
  • Photodynamic therapy
  • Chemical peels
  • Extraction of whiteheads and blackheads

What Are Sebaceous Cysts?

Sebaceous cysts are bumps that appear on the body, mainly on the face, neck, back, and shoulders. These bumps typically contain liquid or other pus-like materials. They are small and grow slowly over time.

Sebaceous cysts are an outcome of some damage or deformity to the sebaceous gland or its ducts. Sebaceous glands can be found all over the skin. They supply your skin and hair with a healthy dose of oil by creating sebum or natural oil and forcing it along the ducts as a passageway to the skin hair. These cysts are not generally dangerous, but they can cause pain and discomfort if treatment is not sought timely.

Causes of Sebaceous Cysts

Sebaceous cysts form when the keratin fluid is trapped near a damaged hair follicle or blocked duct beneath the skin. The sebaceous glands and ducts get damaged or blocked due to any reason, including injury or trauma. Sometimes, genetic disorders can also cause deformity of glands and ducts. When the ducts passageway becomes blocked or damaged, cysts begin to form within them, affecting the oil that was meant to move.

Recognizing them is not easy as they are under the skin, unlike pimples that are much closer to the outermost layer of the skin. These cysts cannot be popped or picked like a regular pimple, and they can hurt the skin or the duct. Check out for bumps-shaped likes domes that are firm and relatively mobile, and you will know if it is a sebaceous cyst.

Treating Sebaceous Cysts

Sebaceous cysts can be difficult to treat as compared to acne because they do not appear on the skin surface and are not the normal inflammation of the skin. They do not cure with the usual creams or washes that work with acne.

Sometimes the cysts have to be drained of their fluids, but there is always the possibility of them filling with oil later on. In specific cases, sebaceous cysts require surgical removal to eliminate their chances of growing back. In severe cases of cystic acne, the last resort is Isotretinoin, a medication that must be used very carefully due to its harmful side effects.

Draining the cyst and injecting medicine such as a steroid can help in the quick removal of the infection and relief from the pain. In certain females, sebaceous cysts do not respond to antibiotics. In such cases, doctors may recommend anti-androgen medication that blocks the effects of the hormone androgen on the sebaceous glands. In some women, the birth control pill also helps to regulate the hormone fluctuation that causes acne.

Sebaceous cysts are a common form of cyst that resembles acne but are not the same. Understanding the skin condition you suffer from and differentiating it from acne is essential for getting appropriate treatment.

Schedule an appointment at the Century Medical and Dental Center to meet the most experienced dermatologists and learn more about the type of skin ailment you are suffering from. The skincare specialist NY will create a treatment plan that provides the relief and healing you seek for your skin. You will get the best advice on getting rid of the painful pimples, papules, and deep nodules and cysts that affect your confidence and quality of life.

SHARE THIS POST Page Updated on Dec 18, 2022 by Dr. Dvorkina (Primary Care Doctor) of Century Medical & Dental Center
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