Sebaceous Cyst Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

These lumps usually disappear on their own but can get infected

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Sebaceous cysts are typically harmless, common skin lumps or bumps believed to result from clogged hair follicles or skin trauma. They are soft, white or yellow, and can be easily moved under the skin.

Sebaceous cysts can pop up anywhere on the body, but are more frequently found on the head, back of the ears, neck, and trunk.

Doctor examining a sebaceous cyst

jarabee123 / Getty Images

Some genetic disorders like Gardner's syndrome may predispose you to sebaceous cysts. They are more common in adults than in children.

This article looks at the symptoms of sebaceous cysts, how they're diagnosed, and what treatment options are available. It also discusses when sebaceous cyst removal is needed and how it's done.

What Is a Cyst?

A cyst is a pouch-like tissue sac filled with fluid, air, or semi-solid substances (like pus). There are many types of cysts. Some, like sebaceous cysts, occur underneath the skin. Others form inside the body, such as on the kidneys or in the breast.

Sebaceous Cyst Symptoms

Sebaceous cysts have several notable features. They:

  • Are soft lumps or bumps
  • Grow slowly just under the skin
  • Are typically painless
  • Usually have a visible hole in the middle called a central punctum
  • Move freely when touched

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

Sebaceous cysts can also get infected. If they do, you may notice:

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

What's Inside a Sebaceous Cyst?

Sebaceous cysts are filled with a mix of dead skin cells and keratin, a protein that's in your hair, skin, nails, glands, and internal organs. If a sebaceous cyst breaks open, you'll see keratin ooze out. It looks "pasty" or "cheesy" and may have a foul odor. Infected sebaceous cysts may also may be filled with pus.

Given their name, it's easy to think that sebaceous cysts instead contain sebum (oil), which comes from sebaceous glands. That is not the case.

Sebaceous cysts originate from the outer layer of skin (the epidermis). Their true name is epidermoid cyst, but many people—even healthcare providers—still use the term sebaceous cyst.

Diagnosis

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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​

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.

Sebaceous Cyst Treatment

There are no proven or reliable ways to dissolve a sebaceous cyst naturally. Luckily, most sebaceous cysts will disappear on their own.

If a sebaceous cyst is inflamed and bothersome, steroid injections into the cyst can be used to calm and shrink it.

You should never try to pop or drain a sebaceous cyst yourself, as this can cause infection. It's OK if they drain on their own, however.

If a sebaceous cyst ends up becoming infected, a healthcare practitioner will open and drain it using sterile tools. They may numb area ahead of time, often with the drug lidocaine, to minimize pain.

Infection from a sebaceous cyst can spread to the surrounding skin. This is called cellulitis, and 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.

When Surgery Is Needed

Sometimes sebaceous cysts grow large enough to interfere with your daily life. These may need to be removed.

This can be done with with an incision or a laser. Research suggests the laser option can minimize scarring and recurrence—a good option if you have a cyst on your face or another visible area.

Either way, it's a simple procedure performed in the provider's office using local anesthesia.

Your healthcare provider will probably wait until your cyst isn't inflamed or infected to move ahead with surgical removal. This can keep the cyst from coming back.

Sebaceous Cyst Removal Recovery

Sebaceous cyst removal is minimally invasive, so recovery tends to be fairly straightforward. Recovery becomes more complicated and prolonged if the site of the removed sebaceous cyst becomes infected.

Otherwise, the length of your recovery from a sebaceous cyst removal depends on the size of your sebaceous cyst and how it is removed.

If the cyst is surgically removed and there is an open wound, it can take several weeks for the wound to heal. You may or may not have stitches that will need to be taken out as well.

While incision and drainage takes less time to heal from—typically about a week—there is a chance that the sebaceous cyst may recur, thus requiring further treatment and recovery.

How Much Does It Cost to Remove a Sebaceous Cyst?

Benign (non-cancerous) sebaceous cysts that do not threaten your health or function are considered cosmetic by many insurance providers, including Medicare. When sebaceous cyst removal is considered a cosmetic procedure, these insurers will not cover it. Without health insurance, sebaceous cyst removal may cost a few hundred dollars.

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 will 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 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.

  • Is there a cream for sebaceous cysts?

    There are no over-the-counter or prescription creams for getting rid of sebaceous cysts. While most go away on their own, you may need to be prescribed an oral antibiotic if your cyst becomes infected. Otherwise, sebaceous cysts can only be drained or removed by a healthcare provider.

12 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

By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.