It can be very tempting to pop a sebaceous cyst yourself at home. Although these common skin growths are ultimately harmless, they can be uncomfortable, unattractive, and – in some instances – even painful. As a result, squeezing the cyst with your fingers or sticking a needle into its shell can seem like a quick and easy solution to rid yourself of the unwanted lump.
Nevertheless, popping a sebaceous cyst at home is a dangerous mistake. Although bursting a cyst yourself may remove the bothersome lump in the short-term, it will inevitably cause problems down the line, such as infection, deep scarring, or even the emergence of more cysts.
In this article, we will discuss everything that there is to know about sebaceous cysts – from their symptoms to possible treatment options – and explain why you should never pop them at home.
What is a Sebaceous Cyst?
Sebaceous cysts are round, fluid-filled lumps that grow beneath the skin. Although they can appear anywhere on the body, they are most commonly found on the face, scalp, neck, chest and back.
Typically, a sebaceous cyst is yellow or white, and looks distinct from the skin that surrounds it. It has a small hole on its dome-like surface, called a punctum, through which its internal fluid can be squeezed out. It is soft to touch, and – when you apply gentle pressure to its shell with your finger – it may slide a little under the skin.
Sebaceous cysts grow slowly over time, until they reach a maximum diameter of roughly 5 centimetres. They are not usually painful, though they can hurt if they rupture or become infected (in which case the cyst will turn red and feel tender to touch). Additionally, sebaceous cysts can be painful if they form in an awkward location and begin to apply pressure to the surrounding areas as they grow larger.
What Causes a Sebaceous Cyst to Grow?
Sebaceous cysts form when your sebaceous glands undergo damage. These glands are responsible for secreting an oily substance called sebum, which moisturises the skin and helps the body to retain water.
The sebaceous glands are located in the skin and are found across the entire surface of the body, except the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. The skin on the face and scalp contains the most sebaceous glands, which is why sebaceous cysts often form in these areas.
When the skin is damaged (which can happen as a result of a scratch, rash, injury, or a skin condition, such as acne), a sebaceous gland within it may get damaged, too. In these cases, the gland will leak sebum, which then becomes trapped under the skin, causing a sebaceous cyst to form.
For this reason, patients who have recently experienced an injury, or who have a history of acne, are more likely to have a sebaceous cyst.
Are Sebaceous Cysts Dangerous?
No, sebaceous cysts are not dangerous. They are benign, non-cancerous skin growths, so they do not pose any serious threat to your health. However, sebaceous cysts grow larger with time, and, if they appear in an uncomfortable place, they can cause discomfort or pain as they grow. Sometimes, when they grow very big, they can even interfere with the way in which patients wear clothes.
Sebaceous cysts can also cause cosmetic concerns, especially when they grow in very visible areas, such as the face. Furthermore, leaving a sebaceous cyst untreated risks the possibility of infection in the future, which will be painful and may require antibiotics to treat.
How Are Sebaceous Cysts Diagnosed?
Usually, a dermatologist can diagnose a lump on the skin as a sebaceous cyst simply by examining it with the naked eye. In some cases, however, a biopsy may have to be performed. This involves taking a small skin sample from the lump, which is then sent to a laboratory for examination.
How Do I Prevent Sebaceous Cysts from Growing?
A sebaceous cyst will grow when sebum has leaked from a sebaceous gland, which happens when the gland has experienced some damage. This damage can be caused by an injury to the skin, or by a skin condition such as acne.
Therefore, the only way to prevent a sebaceous cyst from forming is to take good care of your skin. Implement a skincare routine and follow it regularly, and, if you suffer from acne, try to clear your skin with an effective treatment.
Are Sebaceous Cysts Contagious?
No, sebaceous cysts are not contagious.
Do Sebaceous Cysts Go Away on Their Own?
Although some sebaceous cysts eventually disappear on their own, this is not always the case, as some cysts will continue to grow bigger until they are surgically removed.
When Does a Sebaceous Cyst have to be Removed?
As sebaceous cysts are harmless, it is never necessary for them to be removed. If a cyst is small and not a cause of frustration for you, then it is perfectly fine to simply ignore it. However, if a sebaceous cyst is causing you to feel discomfort, pain or embarrassment, then it is advisable to have it treated.
In these cases, it can be tempting to burst your sebaceous cyst at home, but – as we will discuss below – this is dangerous and likely to lead to further problems in the future.
Is it Safe to Pop a Sebaceous Cyst Myself?
No, you should never remove a sebaceous cyst yourself at home. If you wish to have a cyst of any kind removed, then it must be treated by a medical professional at a clinic. Popping a sebaceous cyst yourself, or asking someone else to burst it for you at home, is unsafe, and will likely require further dermatological treatment in the future.
Why is it unsafe to burst a sebaceous cyst at home?
Here are six reasons why you should never attempt to pop, burst or cut out a sebaceous cyst at home:
The risk of infection is greater
When a sebaceous cyst is removed in a reputable clinic, the highest hygiene standards are maintained. Consequently, the cyst is removed by a medical professional in a sanitary environment and using sterile equipment, which ensures that the risk of infection is as minimal as possible.
When a sebaceous cyst is removed at home, however, the risk of infection is much higher. Even after they are cleaned in the kitchen sink, the instruments that are used to remove a cyst at home are likely to carry germs, which could then enter the body and cause an infection.
This is particularly important if the sebaceous cyst is very large. This is because the removal of a large cyst will create a large wound in the skin. If the cyst has been removed by a medical professional, this hole will be stitched closed using dissolvable stitches. However, if the cyst is removed at home, it is likely that the wound will not be closed appropriately, which leaves the body open and vulnerable to invading pathogens.
Equally, if you attempt to close the wound with stitches at home, it is unlikely that the stitches will be sanitary, which will almost certainly lead to an infection and make you very unwell.
The risk of scarring is greater
Experienced surgeons know how to perform surgical excision in such a way that reduces the risk of scarring as much as possible. As a result, they can remove a sebaceous cyst without creating a large scar, or – in some cases – without creating a scar at all.
When a sebaceous cyst is removed by someone without surgical training, the risk of scarring is very high. This means that popping a sebaceous cyst at home may simply replace the bothersome (but ultimately not irremovable) cyst with a large, permanent scar.
It is likely that the cyst will grow back again
When a sebaceous cyst is treated in a clinic, it is removed in its entirety. Your surgeon will cut out the cyst’s base and capsule, which ensures that it will not appear again.
It requires surgical training and experience to know how to do this, because not all of the cells that make up a sebaceous cyst will be visible to the naked eye. This means that, when you try to remove a sebaceous cyst at home, it is likely that you will think that you have removed the entirety of the cyst, when there are actually still some of its cells remaining. As a result, the sebaceous cyst will simply grow back again (and the act of trying to remove it may also have created a scar).
The cyst may grow back thicker and stronger
As we discussed above, if a sebaceous cyst is not removed in its entirety, it is probable that it will simply grow back. When this happens, the shell of the cyst is usually thicker and stronger than it was before, making it more difficult to remove later on. Consequently, popping a sebaceous cyst at home may lead to the formation of an even tougher lump.
Because a medical professional will always remove a sebaceous cyst fully, there is no risk of a stronger, harder cyst forming when a cyst is removed in a clinic.
The removal of the cyst will be painful
When a sebaceous cyst is excised in a clinic, it is unlikely that the process will be painful. If the cyst is very large or wide, your surgeon will use a local anaesthetic to numb the treatment area prior to the surgery, in order to prevent pain.
Anaesthetic is not available at home, and so popping or bursting a sebaceous cyst yourself will be quite painful.
The risk of cancer cannot be eliminated conclusively
When you discover any kind of lump, bump or abnormal growth on your skin, you must have it examined by a doctor. This will ensure that the lump is diagnosed professionally and eliminate the risk of cancer.
If you find a growth on your body and try to remove it at home (under the assumption that it is only a sebaceous cyst), there is a risk that the lump is actually more dangerous, and requires serious treatment.
What Are the Treatment Options for Removing a Sebaceous Cyst?
So, the safest way to remove a sebaceous cyst is to arrange to have it treated at a reputable clinic – but how does the treatment work? There are four treatment options for removing a sebaceous cyst: surgical excision, punch excision, incision and drainage, or a laser treatment.
The most straightforward and effective method for removing a sebaceous cyst is to cut it out surgically. Prior to this treatment, the area in which the cyst is located will be numbed using a local anaesthetic. Then, your surgeon will mark out the area around the cyst where incisions need to be made. Using a scalpel, the surgeon will then make the necessary incisions and remove the cyst from beneath the skin. This will create a wound, which will be sealed closed using stitches.
After approximately two weeks, the patient will return to the clinic for a check-up, during which the stitches will be removed. This will create a slim linear scar, which will fade with time.
Punch excision is a form of surgical excision. The only difference is that this procedure uses an instrument called a dermal punch, instead of a scalpel, to remove the sebaceous cyst. This device circles the cyst and removes it from the skin like a cookie cutter.
Like surgical excision, a local anaesthetic is used prior to the treatment in order to reduce discomfort. Stitches may be required to seal the wound that is created during the procedure, which will be removed during a check-up appointment two weeks after the surgery.
Generally speaking, punch excision is an effective method for treating small sebaceous cysts, because it causes less scarring. However, a dermal punch cannot be used to treat very large cysts. One of our specialists will determine the right treatment for you during your pre-surgical consultation.
Incision and Drainage
Sebaceous cysts can also be treated via a procedure known as incision and drainage. During this treatment, a dermatologist will use a very fine needle to puncture a small hole in the shell of the cyst. The liquid inside will then be squeezed out through the hole, until the cyst has been drained entirely.
This method is less invasive than surgical excision, which is why some patients prefer it. However, it is likely that a sebaceous cyst will eventually reappear after it has been drained. By contrast, surgical removal will ensure that the cyst disappears forever.
Depending on the patient’s preferences, sebaceous cysts can be drained using a laser, instead of a fine needle. During a laser treatment, a dermatologist will direct a powerful beam of light at the cyst, which will create a small hole in its shell. Then, the liquid inside will be drained from the cyst through this hole.
As we mentioned above, draining a cyst of its internal content will make it disappear, but it does not prevent it from reappearing again. Thus, though a laser treatment is an effective (and scar-free) method for removing a sebaceous cyst in the short-term, surgical excision is the only way to erase the growth for good.
Although sebaceous cysts can be frustrating and unflattering, they are ultimately non-cancerous, and do not pose any serious risk to your health – but attempting to remove them yourself could. Popping a sebaceous cyst at home puts you at risk of developing an infection that could make you very unwell, or cause permanent damage to your skin. Consequently, the only way to ensure that a sebaceous cyst is removed both safely and permanently is to have it treated by a professional at a clinic.
Brian Moore et al., ‘What’s the Best Treatment for Sebaceous Cysts?’, The Journal of Family Practice, 56 (2007), 315-316.
Lydia Krause, ‘Sebaceous Cyst: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, and More’, Healthline
‘Skin Cyst’, NHS
Motonobu Nakamura, ‘Treating a Sebaceous Cyst: An Incisional Technique’, Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 25 (2001), 52-56.