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What Is an Epidermal Cyst?

An epidermal cyst is a noncancerous, small bump beneath the skin, often filled with keratin. It typically arises from hair follicles or skin trauma. While usually harmless, it can become inflamed or infected. Understanding these cysts is key to recognizing when to seek treatment. Wondering how they affect your skin health and when to consult a doctor? Continue exploring with us.
K.C. Bruning
K.C. Bruning

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.

An epidermal cyst.
An epidermal cyst.

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.

Epidermal cysts are commonly found on the neck.
Epidermal cysts are commonly found on the neck.

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.

A stubborn epidermal cyst should be examined by a doctor.
A stubborn epidermal cyst should be examined by a doctor.

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.

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Discussion Comments

cloudel

@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.

seag47

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.

kylee07drg

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.

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    • An epidermal cyst.
      By: Paul Huxley
      An epidermal cyst.
    • Epidermal cysts are commonly found on the neck.
      By: Max Tactic
      Epidermal cysts are commonly found on the neck.
    • A stubborn epidermal cyst should be examined by a doctor.
      By: Radu Razvan
      A stubborn epidermal cyst should be examined by a doctor.
    • A doctor should be consulted for treatment options if a person has an epidermal cyst.
      By: Syda Productions
      A doctor should be consulted for treatment options if a person has an epidermal cyst.
    • Milia may form as a result of dermabrasion treatments.
      By: Photographee.eu
      Milia may form as a result of dermabrasion treatments.