When to Worry About a Sebaceous Cyst

They usually disappear without treatment but can get infected

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Sebaceous cysts are common skin cysts that can pop up really anywhere on the body but are more frequently seen on the head, back of the ears, neck, and trunk. They are believed to result from a clogged hair follicle or skin trauma. In addition, some genetic disorders like Gardner's syndrome may predispose a person to develop sebaceous cysts.

Close up of a woman's back
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Some confusion arises around sebaceous cysts as these cysts contain keratin, and not sebum (oil) because they originate from the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis) and not the sebaceous glands.

In fact, the true name for sebaceous cyst is an epidermoid cyst, although many people, even healthcare professionals, still erroneously use the term sebaceous cyst. Given that the term sebaceous cyst is still often used in the medical community, this article will refer to the cyst as such.

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Cyst of a sebaceous gland on the scalp
Cyst of a sebaceous gland on the scalp. Lester V. Bergman / Getty Images​

Sebaceous Cyst Symptoms

Sebaceous cysts are painless, soft lumps or bumps that grow slowly just under your skin. They usually have a visible hole in the middle (called a central punctum) and can move freely when touched.

You can see the keratin if the cyst becomes inflamed and breaks open. Keratin is a "pasty" or "cheesy" looking substance that may have a foul odor.

Some sebaceous cysts remain stable in size with time whereas others grow larger which may be uncomfortable and painful, especially if the cyst becomes inflamed. To prevent infection, it's important not to touch or try to remove the substance inside a sebaceous cyst, although this can occur simply on its own.

Signs that may indicate an infection of a sebaceous cyst include:

  • Redness
  • Tenderness
  • Increased temperature of the skin over the cyst (it feels warm)


Sebaceous cysts, to the trained eye, are usually easily diagnosed by their appearance. In some cases, a biopsy or skin culture may be necessary to rule out other conditions with a similar appearance.

For instance, an abscess (a collection of pus underneath the skin) or a lipoma (a noncancerous mass of fatty tissue) can resemble a sebaceous cyst. To ensure a correct diagnosis, you should see your healthcare provider for a formal evaluation.


Sebaceous cysts most often disappear on their own and are not dangerous. As stated, however, they may become inflamed, tender, and even infected.

Sometimes sebaceous cysts grow large enough that they may interfere with your everyday life. When this happens, surgical removal may be necessary, and this procedure can be done at your healthcare provider's office.

Inflamed cysts can often be treated by your healthcare provider who will inject a steroid into the cyst to calm and shrink it. But if your healthcare provider suspects the cyst is infected, it needs to be incised and drained to remove the infected material.

Due to the fact that an infected cyst can be painful, your healthcare provider will likely inject an anesthetic (for example, 1% lidocaine) around the cyst to numb the area first before draining it.

If an infected sebaceous cyst is not promptly treated, the infection can spread into the surrounding skin. This is called cellulitis, which is a more serious condition, often requiring an oral antibiotic in addition to incision and drainage.

For complete surgical removal of the cyst, including the cyst wall, a healthcare provider will usually wait until the cyst is not inflamed or infected before excising it, as recurrence of the cyst is then much less common.

Besides excision (cutting out the cyst surgically), a study published in the Archives of Plastic Surgery reports on a CO2 laser treatment to remove sebaceous cysts with minimal scarring and low recurrence rates. This may be a good option for people with a cyst on their face or other visible areas.

A Word From Verywell

The big picture here is that it's important to consult your healthcare provider any time you notice any type of growth, bump, or lump on your body. Although sebaceous cysts are benign, your healthcare provider should examine you to ensure that another more worrisome concern is not present.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will squeezing a sebaceous cyst get rid of it?

    It's not a good idea. If a sebaceous cyst grows large enough to be bothersome or becomes infected, a health care provider may inject it with a steroid, drain it, or remove it surgically.

  • How can I get rid of a sebaceous cyst on my own?

    If it's small and doesn't hurt (which is the case with most such cysts), it's best to leave it alone. It likely will go away without treatment. If it contains pus or is painful, you can try holding a warm, damp cloth on it to encourage it to open up and drain.

  • What's inside a sebaceous cyst?

    A mix of dead skin cells and a protein called keratin. If the cyst becomes infected, it also may be filled with pus.

  • What sort of healthcare provider should I go to for a sebaceous cyst?

    See a dermatologist. As a skin specialist, they'll have the expertise to correctly diagnose a sebaceous cyst and the tools and knowledge to treat one if necessary.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. Song SW, Burm JS, Yang WY, Kang SY. Minimally Invasive Excision of Epidermal Cysts through a Small Hole Made by a CO2 Laser. Arch Plast Surg. 2014;41(1):85-8. doi:10.5999/aps.2014.41.1.85

  8. Medline Plus. Epidermoid cyst. Updated Sept 1, 2021.

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