If you find a yellow or white lump on your skin, you might have a sebaceous cyst. Sebaceous cysts are usually harmless and they don’t hurt, but keep an eye out for signs of infection. You can get treatment for your sebaceous cyst, or see if it goes away on its own. But, if left untreated, the cyst could be with you forever.
A cyst is a slow-growing, protein-filled, dome-like, yellow or white lump that can move easily under the skin. There are many types of cysts — hundreds, actually. Unlike epidermoid cysts, which originate from the skin, and unlike pilar cysts, which come from hair follicles, true sebaceous cysts are rare and originate from your sebaceous glands.
Sebaceous cysts can be found on your entire body (except the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet). When squeezed, the punctum (a small dome-shaped projection) will appear. Through that opening, the fluid (sebum) inside may be squeezed out.
Sebaceous cysts are usually harmless. Very few can become malignant (cancerous).
Epidermal inclusion cysts are sometimes mixed up with sebaceous cysts. Note that epidermal inclusion cysts do not involve the sebaceous gland.
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Sebaceous glands are located all over your body, especially where there’s hair, although there are few on your hands and feet and zero on your palms and soles. The locations with the greatest glands per square centimeter include the ear canal, genitals, mid-back, chin and forehead. Each gland is made up of a lobe connected by ducts. Most sebaceous glands connect to hair follicles while others open on the surface of your skin. Your sebaceous glands produce a mixture of lipids called sebum. The lipids include:
Each sebaceous gland lives for about a week and produces sebum when it disintegrates. Sebum makes up part of the oil on your skin. It has several functions:
Sebaceous cysts are far less common than other types of similar cysts such as epidermoid cysts and pilar cysts.
Sebaceous cysts normally don’t hurt, but they can become tender, sore and red if they get infected. One sign of infection is redness and swelling around the cyst or foul-smelling drainage seeping out of the cyst. See your healthcare provider if you have such symptoms.
Sebaceous cysts are common and harmless but, rarely, a sebaceous cyst can become malignant (cancerous).
A sebaceous cyst is possibly cancerous if it has any of these characteristics:
It is difficult for the layman to tell whether a lump is a cyst or something else. If it’s not a sebaceous cyst, then you might need some sort of treatment. See your healthcare provider.
A boil is a painful collection of pus that forms in the skin because of a bacterial infection. Sometimes a sebaceous cyst can become infected, developing into a boil or skin abscess.
You can get a sebaceous cyst at any age.
No, sebaceous cysts are not contagious.
A sebaceous cyst may go away on its own. However, without treatment, you could have it for life.
Sebaceous cysts come from your sebaceous glands. Cysts can develop if the gland or its duct (the passage through which the sebum leaves for the skin) gets damaged or blocked. This usually happens as a result of some sort of trauma in the area such as a scratch, a surgical wound, or a skin condition like acne. The cysts can also form because of a misshapen or deformed duct, or genetic conditions such as basal cell nevus syndrome.
The main symptom of a sebaceous cyst is a small lump under the skin. The lump is usually not painful. In some cases, however, cysts can get inflamed and become tender to the touch. The skin on the area of the cyst may be red and/or warm if the cyst is inflamed.
No known foods or drinks affect sebaceous cysts.
Sebaceous cysts are rarely harmful. However, there have been some rare cases where the cysts have become malignant. Discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider.
Some cysts go away on their own while others continue to grow until you get treatment. Without treatment, you may have the sebaceous cyst for the rest of your life.
Sebaceous cysts are far less common than epidermoid cysts. Although the appearance of a sebaceous cyst may be slightly yellowish, the diagnosis is officially confirmed after a pathologist examines the cyst after removal. In some cases, the healthcare provider will perform a biopsy to rule out other skin growths.
If your healthcare provider suspects that your sebaceous cyst is abnormal and possibly cancerous, he or she may order the following tests:
If the cyst is small, not growing and not bothersome, the sebaceous cysts can be ignored, as they usually are not dangerous. If a small cyst becomes inflamed, your healthcare provider may inject it with a steroid drug to reduce swelling. A healthcare provider may drain a cyst that is large, tender, or inflamed. Larger cysts may need to be removed if they cause hair loss on the scalp, or interfere with clothing.
When your cyst is removed you’ll be given a local anesthetic to numb your skin. Your healthcare provider will make a cut and squeeze out the protein inside. If the entire cyst is removed, the cyst likely will not come back; but if part of the lining remains, the cyst will likely recur.
Your healthcare provider may use one of the following methods to get rid of your sebaceous cyst:
Never try to burst and drain the cyst yourself. That could spread an infection and the cyst could grow back.
If you think the sebaceous cyst is infected then you should see your healthcare provider right away. You might need antibiotics.
Your healthcare provider may be able to drain the cyst or they’ll refer you to a surgeon to remove it.
You’ll likely have a scar after your healthcare provider removes the cyst. There’s also a chance of infection, so your healthcare provider may give you an antibiotic ointment to apply after the procedure.
Only some healthcare providers can remove cysts. If your regular healthcare provider can’t do it then you’ll be referred to a specialist.
Help reduce inflammation by holding a warm towel against the cyst.
The best thing you can do to prevent a sebaceous cyst is to prevent traumas that may cause it. Avoid being scratched or hit. Get your acne treated by a dermatologist.
Although there are no medicines that can keep you from getting a sebaceous cyst, you can prevent a removed cyst from returning if you have surgery.
What you eat and drink has no effect on sebaceous cysts.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a sebaceous cyst, then you have the option to get treatment, or to wait and see if it goes away. If you decide on treatment, you can choose what kind you want – whether it’s draining the cyst or having it surgically removed.
Your sebaceous cyst may get better on its own. If it doesn’t, you can get treatment to remove it.
Sebaceous cysts can grow with time. Some get so big that they interfere with how you wear clothes. Sometimes the only option is to surgically remove them.
Living with sebaceous cysts can be difficult for some people, especially if the sebaceous cyst is in a very obvious spot like on the hand or scalp.
Report your symptoms to your healthcare provider. Never try to burst and drain the cyst yourself. That could spread an infection and the cyst could grow back. Keep an eye out for signs of infection. Report them to your healthcare provider.
Always see your healthcare provider if you find a lump on your skin. If might be a sebaceous cyst, another type of cyst, or something else. Don’t try to diagnose yourself. Don’t rely on the internet. See your healthcare provider for a clear diagnosis and specialized treatment.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider about anything wrong with your skin. Even if you’re concerned for cosmetic reasons, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care of your skin. Be cautious. The lump on your skin might be a harmless, benign sebaceous cyst, or it might be something dangerous. Rely on your healthcare provider for a clear diagnosis and correct treatment options.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/15/2021.
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