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What Is an Epidermal Cyst?

K.C. Bruning
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An epidermal cyst is a growth that develops on the skin. It is also known as an epidermoid, sebaceous, or keratin cyst. These typically benign masses are most commonly found on the areas from the neck to the top of the head and the trunk, though they can grow on any part of the skin. They are among the most common kinds of cysts. Most epidermal cysts can be ignored and may even go away on their own, but in some cases removal may be required.

Many epidermal cysts begin to grow due to swollen hair follicles. The blockage caused by the shrinkage of space in the follicle results in a back-up of fluid and the accumulation of cells known as keratin. When this material cannot properly exit the body, it builds up until it eventually develops into a cyst. The growth may also happen as a result of trauma to the skin, such as with surgery.

On rare occasions, this type of cyst can become sore and inflamed, or develop abscesses. If the mass becomes uncomfortable or infected, it can be injected with steroids so that it will shrink. Larger cysts may need to be removed surgically. The application of moist warmth over the cyst, such as with a damp cloth, may also help it to drain on its own. Once a cyst has been cleared, the area will usually heal permanently, though it is possible for the growth to return.

The material in an epidermal cyst is usually a combination of a thin, oily fluid and a thicker mass similar in texture to a soft cheese. In most cases, the fluid is harmless. If bacteria enter the cyst, there may also be pus due to infection.

Although most cysts can be safely ignored, they can be similar in appearance and texture to other more serious growths on the skin. If a growth does not go away after the application of moist warmth, it is usually advisable to have it examined by a doctor so that diseases such as cancer can be ruled out. Most cysts will develop over a long period of time and maybe even several years.

Milia is a common type of epidermal cyst. These growths are smaller than the typical variety and usually grow in groups. Infants will often develop milia, though they can be found at any age. Milia may also develop as the result of procedures such as dermabrasion or following blistering of the skin.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
K.C. Bruning
By K.C. Bruning
Kendahl Cruver Bruning, a versatile writer and editor, creates engaging content for a wide range of publications and platforms, including The Health Board. With a degree in English, she crafts compelling blog posts, web copy, resumes, and articles that resonate with readers. Bruning also showcases her passion for writing and learning through her own review site and podcast, offering unique perspectives on various topics.
Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On Feb 29, 2012

@seag47 – My husband gets those cysts on his back, and I do the same thing as you to remove them. He seems to think that this is the most sensitive area to have cysts drained, but I think he only assumes this because he hasn't had any on other parts of his body.

Many of his epidermal cysts on his back have a small hair growing out of them, so this tells me that a hair follicle has become inflamed. The easiest way for me to drain them is to stick my long fingernail underneath them and scoop upward. He yells out in pain, but it works much more quickly than pressing from both sides.

By seag47 — On Feb 29, 2012

I get epidermal cysts right on the edge of my hairline, especially on my temples. This is a very sensitive area, and the cysts here are far more tender than the ones in other areas.

If they are filled with a lot of keratin and are becoming unsightly, I will prick them with a needle and press on both sides to drain the goo out. This hurts like having my eyebrows waxed, but getting the cyst off of my face is worth it.

I've tried using exfoliating masks to dry up these cysts, but this hasn't worked for me. I guess since they are caused by an infected hair follicle, a regular old acne treatment would not work on them.

By kylee07drg — On Feb 28, 2012

I have had problems with epidermal cysts after shaving my legs and bikini area. Instead of a common red rash, I get actual keratin-filled bumps a day or two after shaving.

I once made the mistake of trying to pop one. I will never do that again. It was incredibly painful, and the red area only swelled up further afterward.

I have found that changing out my disposable razor every two weeks keeps me from getting as many epidermal cysts. Dull razor blades can force me to go over an area two or three times, and I think this disturbs and irritates the hair follicle.

K.C. Bruning
K.C. Bruning
Kendahl Cruver Bruning, a versatile writer and editor, creates engaging content for a wide range of publications and...
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