When to Worry About a Sebaceous Cyst

They usually disappear without treatment but can get infected

Sebaceous cysts are common skin cysts. They can pop up anywhere on the body. But they're more frequently on the head, back of the ears, neck, and trunk.

Sebaceous cysts are believed to result from clogged hair follicles or skin trauma. Some genetic disorders like Gardner's syndrome may predispose you to them.

This article looks at the symptoms of sebaceous cysts, how they're diagnosed, and what treatment options are available.

Close up of a woman's back
Peathegee Inc / Blend Images / Getty Images

Sebaceous Cyst Symptoms

Sebaceous cysts are painless, soft lumps or bumps. They grow slowly just under your skin.

They usually have a visible hole in the middle. It's called a central punctum. The cysts move freely when touched.

Some confusion exists about sebaceous cysts. The name makes it sound as if they contain sebum (oil). But they actually contain keratin.

Keratin is a protein that's in your hair, skin, nails, glands, and internal organs. You can see the keratin if the cyst breaks open. It looks "pasty" or "cheesy" and may have a foul odor.

Sebaceous cysts originate from the outer layer of skin (the epidermis). To be filled with sebum, they'd need to come from the sebaceous glands.

In fact, their true name is epidermoid cyst. But many people, even healthcare providers, still use the term sebaceous cyst.

Some sebaceous cysts stay the same size over time. Others get bigger. That can get uncomfortable or painful, especially if they're inflamed.

To prevent infection, don't touch or try to drain it yourself. It's okay if they drain on their own.

Signs of an infected sebaceous cyst include:

  • Redness
  • Tenderness
  • Warmth in the skin over the cyst

Recap

Sebaceous cysts are soft bumps under the skin. They contain keratin, which may look cheesy and have a foul odor. They may or may not get larger over time. Leave them alone or they can become infected.

Diagnosis

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

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

Many healthcare providers can diagnose sebaceous cysts on sight. In some cases, they may order a biopsy or skin culture to rule out similar conditions.

Things that may look like a sebaceous cyst include:

  • Abscess: A collection of pus underneath the skin.
  • Lipoma: A noncancerous mass of fatty tissue.

Don't try to diagnose yourself. See a healthcare provider so you know for sure what it is.

Treatment

Sebaceous cysts most often disappear on their own. They're not dangerous unless they become infected. If they're inflamed, they may hurt.

Sometimes sebaceous cysts grow large enough to interfere with your life. These may need to be surgically removed. It's a simple procedure usually performed in the provider's office.

For inflamed cysts, steroid injections into the cyst to calm and shrink it. But if it's infected, it needs to be opened and drained.

Because an infected cyst can be painful, your healthcare provider may numb the cyst before draining it. The drug lidocaine is often used to numb the area.

Infection from a sebaceous cyst can spread to the surrounding skin. This is called cellulitis. It's a more serious condition. You may need an oral antibiotic plus incision and drainage. You can avoid cellulitis by getting infected cysts treated right away.

If a cyst needs to be surgically removed, your healthcare provider will probably wait until it isn't inflamed or infected. This can keep the cyst from coming back.

Laser removal is also an option. Research suggests it can minimize scarring and recurrence. This may be a good option if you have a cyst on your face or another visible area.

Summary

Sebaceous cysts are bumps just under the skin. They're full of keratin. Despite the name, they don't contain sebum.

They can usually be diagnosed on sight. Biopsies can rule out similar problems, if needed. Treatments can involve steroid injections, drainage, or surgical removal.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to see your healthcare provider any time you notice a growth, bump, or lump on your body.

Sebaceous cysts aren't generally harmful. Still, your provider can make sure the bump isn't something more serious.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Will squeezing a sebaceous cyst get rid of it?

    Maybe, but it's not a good idea. If a sebaceous cyst gets is bothersome or infected, your healthcare provider may:

    • Inject it with steroids
    • Drain it
    • 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 common—it's best to leave it alone. It'll likely go away without treatment.

    If it contains pus or is painful, hold a warm, damp cloth on it. That'll encourage it to open and drain.

  • What's inside a sebaceous cyst?

    A mix of dead skin cells and a protein called keratin are inside. Infected cysts may also may be filled with pus.

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

    See a dermatologist. That's a skin specialist who can correctly diagnose and treat a sebaceous cyst.

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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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Additional Reading