What Is Sebaceous Hyperplasia?

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Sebaceous hyperplasia is a very common, non-contagious condition that causes small bumps on the skin. They are most often skin-colored and can be smooth or slightly uneven and coarse.

Once sebaceous hyperplasia appears, it generally does not go away without treatment. However, the bumps can be left alone without concern.

This article reviews the symptoms and causes of sebaceous hyperplasia, and how healthcare providers diagnose and distinguish it from certain types of skin cancer. You'll also learn about various treatment options, including medications and procedures.

Everyone prefers a smooth finish after shaving
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Sebaceous Hyperplasia Symptoms

Sebaceous hyperplasia can appear as a single bump or multiple bumps in a cluster or line.

They range in size from 1 or 2 millimeters to several millimeters in size. While they are often the same color as your skin, they can also take on a white to slightly yellow tint.

The bumps don't hurt or itch, but they may bleed if you knock them or shave over them.

Sebaceous hyperplasia most often develops on the face, especially the forehead, cheeks, and nose. Babies also often have bumps on the upper lip.

Though it can appear elsewhere—the back and chest, shoulders, areola, penis, scrotum, and vulva, for example—this is much rarer.

Sebaceous hyperplasia bumps are generally there to stay once they appear. One exception? Newborns. Their bumps usually recede and disappear within a few months of life.

Acne or Sebaceous Hyperplasia?

Sebaceous hyperplasia is often confused with comedonal acne because the bumps look very similar to non-inflamed acne breakouts.

But look closely: If you see a depressed or pitted area in the center of a bump, or tiny blood vessels (telangiectasia) inside, it's unlikely that you're dealing with an acne breakout.

Causes

Sebaceous hyperplasia bumps are not rashes or growths. Rather, they are enlarged sebaceous glands: tiny glands underneath the surface of the skin that, if not for this condition, you wouldn't notice are there.

Sebaceous glands are all over the body, except for the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Their job is to create oil called sebum, which keeps skin lubricated and healthy.

In sebaceous hyperplasia, there is an overabundance of sebocytes, the special cells that make up the sebaceous glands. These cells create an enlargement of the sebaceous gland, causing it to grow to several times larger than its normal size.

Now, instead of being a tiny gland under the skin's surface, it's large enough to create a bump that can be easily seen.

There are several factors that contribute to sebaceous hyperplasia. The biggest one is hormone changes.

There also seems to be a genetic link. If someone in your family has sebaceous hyperplasia, you're more prone to developing it too.

In some cases, sebaceous hyperplasia may be linked to sun exposure.

Hormones

Androgens, testosterone in particular, stimulate sebaceous glands to create more oil. The significant role these hormones play is very evident during puberty, when a huge increase in androgens leads many teens to have very oily skin.

With age, androgens decrease. This slows down the sebaceous gland activity and, as a result, oil production.

Cell turnover—the rate at which dead cells in the sebaceous glands are replaced with fresh ones—slows down as well. The cells back up within the gland, causing it to enlarge.

Risk Factors

Sebaceous hyperplasia is more common as you get older. Typically, it doesn't appear until middle age or later.

The condition affects both men and women about equally. It's seen most often in people with light or fair complexions.

It is also much more common in those taking the immunosuppressive drug cyclosporine long-term, such as people who have had a transplant.

Some people get sebaceous hyperplasia at a much earlier age if there is a strong family history of it, though this is rarer.

Newborns who develop this condition do so because of hormones passed from mother to child. It often appears alongside baby acne.

Recap

Sebaceous hyperplasia develops when your sebaceous (oil) glands enlarge, likely as a result of age and changing hormone levels. Increased sun exposure and certain genes or medications, like cyclosporine, may also contribute to the development of this condition.

Diagnosis

A simple visual inspection by your healthcare provider is often all that is needed to diagnose sebaceous hyperplasia. However, if there is any question about the diagnosis, your healthcare provider might order a skin biopsy to rule out skin cancer.

It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between sebaceous hyperplasia and the similar-looking (but more serious) skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma.

Basal cell carcinoma often appears on the head or neck and looks like a shiny, raised, and round pimple, scar, or sore.

Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma.


Science Photo Library - DR. P. MARAZZI/Getty Images

A biopsy can also help rule out a rare type of skin cancer called sebaceous gland carcinoma. This slow-growing cancer appears as a firm, yellowish lump, often on the eyelid. It may bleed and look like a pimple or sore that doesn't heal, or heals and reappears.

Patients with Muir-Torre syndrome—a rare inherited disease that is a variant of Lynch syndrome—are particularly at risk for developing sebaceous gland carcinoma.

Recap

A healthcare provider diagnoses sebaceous hyperplasia by simply looking at the appearance of the bumps. Sometimes a biopsy is needed to rule out mimicking, more serious conditions, like skin cancer.

Treatment

Adults can choose to treat the bumps for cosmetic reasons or leave them be. There is no medical need to treat sebaceous hyperplasia.

Squeezing sebaceous hyperplasia bumps won't help, as there's nothing inside that can be extracted. In fact, doing this can actually cause the bumps to become inflamed or bleed.

If you do desire treatment, there are a variety of options to choose from. The results you get depend more on factors like the number of bumps you have, your age, and your skin type (e.g., color and how it reacts to sun exposure) than the specific therapy used.

Prescription Medications

Prescription medications like topical retinoids and azelaic acid may help keep new sebaceous hyperplasia blemishes from forming because they speed up the skin's natural cell turnover rate.

They may also make existing bumps appear smaller, although these topical treatments probably won't get rid of them altogether.

In severe cases of sebaceous hyperplasia, your healthcare provider may prescribe Accutane (isotretinoin)—an oral medication that shrinks sebaceous glands. While effective, bumps may return after the medicine is stopped. Accutane also cannot be used during pregnancy.

Finally, antiandrogen medications, such as certain birth control pills and Aldactone (spironolactone), can be used in women with sebaceous hyperplasia. These medications work by blocking the effect of testosterone on the skin.

Procedures

There are several in-office procedures that you can have done to treat sebaceous hyperplasia.

There are some who opt for these treatments right away, as they tend to provide a faster and more obvious improvement of the bumps. Still, there is a risk of skin discoloration or scarring, and the condition may recur.

Such procedures include:

  • Laser resurfacing: A laser delivers a wavelength of light into your skin that targets, heats, and destroys enlarged sebaceous glands.
  • Photodynamic therapy: A chemical substance that absorbs light is applied to your skin. Then, light treatment is used to reduce the number and size of sebaceous glands.
  • Cryotherapy: Liquid nitrogen is sprayed onto the affected area of the skin to freeze the bumps so they dry up and fall off.
  • Cauterization or electrodesiccation: A sharp needle is heated with an electrical charge and inserted into each bump to rapidly dry it up.
  • Excision: Bumps are shaved or cut out.

OTC Medications

Some have used over-the-counter face washes or facial peels containing salicylic acid to diminish the appearance of the bumps. Others have used facial creams that contain retinol to help clear clogged oil glands.

There is no scientific evidence to back using these or any other over-the-counter products to treat sebaceous hyperplasia; any support you hear is anecdotal.

That said, when used as directed, there is no harm in trying them if you'd like.

Home Remedies

Even though your sebaceous hyperplasia won't go away, applying a warm compress to your bumps may help reduce their size and any associated inflammation.

Finally, since sun exposure may play a role in the presence of sebaceous hyperplasia, wearing sunscreen with an SPF of a least 30 every day may help prevent the onset or worsening of the condition.

Recap

Sebaceous hyperplasia is purely a cosmetic problem. Since it's completely harmless, many people choose not to treat it. For those who want to, skin products, medications, and procedures like laser resurfacing may help.

Summary

Sebaceous hyperplasia is characterized by the formation of small, painless bumps on areas of the body where many oil glands are found, like your face.

This harmless skin condition can usually be diagnosed with a simple visual inspection, although sometimes a biopsy is performed to rule out skin cancer.

Any treatment for sebaceous hyperplasia is for cosmetic purposes only.

A Word From Verywell

Whenever you have a bump, lesion, or any other unknown issue on the skin, it's always important to see a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis. This is especially true for suspected sebaceous hyperplasia, since the bumps can look incredibly similar to skin cancer.

If you end up being diagnosed with sebaceous hyperplasia, rest assured that those bumps are likely much more obvious to you than they are to anyone else.

With that said, feeling your best is part of your overall wellbeing. If you feel treating your condition may help you feel less self-conscious, speak to your healthcare provider about your options.

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