As if waxing or shaving wasn’t already enough of a chore, getting an ingrown hair after you have spent all that time getting your hair removed is just the icing on the cake. Ingrown hairs are painful, uncomfortable, unsightly, and they can take forever to heal.
While some people are more prone than others, when it comes to ingrown hairs it is definitely better to prevent them rather than to treat them. If you tend to get ingrown hairs and you are tired of dealing with them, keep reading to find out not only what causes them and how to treat them, but also how to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Table Of Contents
- 1 What Is An Ingrown Hair
- 2 How To Identify An Ingrown Hair
- 3 What Causes Ingrown Hairs
- 4 How To Prevent Ingrown Hairs
- 5 How To Get Rid Of Ingrown Hairs
- 6 Conclusion
What Is An Ingrown Hair
To understand what an ingrown hair is it is important first to understand what the process behind hair growth is. Humans are born with approximately 5 000 000 hair follicles all around their bodies, and we have hair almost everywhere that there is skin on our bodies except the soles of our feet and the palms of our hands.
How hairs grow normally:
- A hair follicle is a tiny pocket or cavity that regulates hair growth and houses individual hair strands.
- Your hair begins to grow at the root of the follicle.
- As it gets longer, it gets pushed to the surface of your skin through a lining that guides the hair in the direction it needs to go.
- When it is about to reach the surface, it passes through oil glands and other important structures that help it break the surface and become visible.
The hair growth process is the same throughout your body, but hairs take different times to complete the growth cycle in different areas of your body. For example, because this process is slower and takes a longer time to happen on your scalp, the hair on your head is much longer than anywhere else on your body.
How An Ingrown Hair Forms
Ingrown hairs happen when a new hair strand that is growing back after being removed (by shaving, waxing, etc.) cannot break to the surface because the hair follicle is clogged up with sebum or dead skin cells. Sometimes, ingrown hairs can also happen because the hair strand grows sideways instead of upwards, which can make it curl back into the hair follicle.
When a hair follicle is clogged and the hair strand cannot get to the surface, it must find a way to keep growing, so it grows back into the follicle or the skin next to it, creating a visible and sometimes painful bump. Ingrown hairs are very common side effects of hair removal and tend to happen more often on people with thick, coarse hair.
Ingrown Hair Complications
Sometimes minor ingrown hairs sit just under the surface of your skin, which can be frustrating because you can see them, but it is hard to remove them. Usually, ingrown hairs look like a small, red bump that can be a little painful or itchy. However, some ingrown hairs develop into ingrown hair cysts or pustules, which happens when the initial bump becomes infected.
A pustule is a large pus-filled lump that looks like a big pimple, but in this case, it is caused by an infected hair that reverted to the hair follicle and became infected. Pustules occur when the ingrown hair gets infected because the hair strand wasn’t able to find its way back to the surface. When a hair gets stuck in the hair follicle or grows back in it, your body treats it as a foreign object, so it starts an inflammatory process to try to get rid of it.
While pustules and ingrown hairs can happen anywhere on the body, there are some areas more prone to developing them than others. These areas include common hair removal areas such as the legs, bikini line, face, underarms and neck. People who have curly or coarse hair are also more likely to develop ingrown hairs because the weight and thickness of the hair strand can make it curl back into the skin.
Sometimes recurrent cases or ingrown hairs or several infected ingrown hairs happening at the same time can be referred to as folliculitis. Folliculitis is the infection or inflammation of hair follicles and it tends to occur in places where there is a lot of friction, such as places where you wear very tight clothes. Typically, folliculitis looks like a cluster of bumps or even like a rash that can be red, yellow or white that feels itchy or tender and it can be a one-time occurrence, or it can be chronic.
How To Identify An Ingrown Hair
Sometimes you see a red bump in your face or your leg and you may wonder if it is a pimple or an ingrown hair. Because ingrown hairs and blemishes can look very similar, you can figure out which one it is simply by paying attention to where and when these bumps are showing up.
If you are a man and you feel like you get pimples on your face or neck every couple of days, it may be wise to stop shaving for a few days to evaluate the area. If you are not breaking out when you are not shaving maybe these bumps are actually ingrown hairs.
If the ingrown hair hasn’t become a cyst, it can be easier to identify which is which; ingrown hairs, especially in the beard area tend to be smaller red bumps while zits tend to be bigger and have a white or yellowish head.
Ingrown hairs in other places such as bikini line area can be harder to identify and can be very alarming. Because some STDs such as herpes or HPV can develop pimple-like bumps on your pubic region, it can be easy to mistake an ingrown hair for an STD. While there is no sure-fire way other than going to the doctor to decipher if your growth is actually an ingrown hair rather than an STD they do have different symptoms.
STDs like genital herpes are usually accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as tiredness, fever, and general body aches, while with an ingrown hair, unless seriously infected, you will only feel pain and discomfort in the affected area. Also, differently from ingrown hairs, STDs that develop into rashes or bumps are usually in clusters instead of single bumps.
What Causes Ingrown Hairs
Some people are more likely than others to develop ingrown hairs; this happens because thick or curly hairs sometimes tend to bend and re-enter the skin or hair follicle it came out of. But ingrown hairs can happen to anybody, not only those with coarse or curly hair. Here are some of the most common causes of ingrown hairs.
Some people think that you can’t get ingrown hairs if you wax, but sadly that is not the case. Waxing is one of the most common hair removal methods; typically, a strip of melted warm wax is spread over the area where hairs want to be removed and it is then ripped either by hand or with a piece of cloth.
Nowadays there are many different types of wax and methods for waxing including fruit wax, sugar wax, hard and soft wax, and even chocolate wax. All of these methods claim to be beneficial for sensitive skin and to have many properties thought to make your wax last longer and your skin stay softer. However, none of them make you less likely to get ingrown hairs after you wax.
The myth that waxing doesn’t cause ingrown hairs stems from the fact that waxing is not actually cutting the hair but ripping it from the root. While this is true, some dermatologists believe that waxing may be even worse in terms of getting ingrown hairs than shaving.
The problem with waxing is that when the hair is ripped out from its root, the lining that guides it out of the hair follicle can become damaged or disrupted. That means that when a new hair grows out of that same root, it doesn’t have the lining that guides it all the way out, making it more likely to turn back on itself and become an ingrown hair.
The technique you or your esthetician uses for waxing also plays a crucial role at the time of developing ingrown hairs. Experts recommend that you apply wax in the direction that your hair grows to make sure all the hairs will adhere better to the strip, and then pulling the strip in the opposite direction. Pulling in the opposite direction can reduce irritation, which will make you less likely to develop ingrown hairs.
Shaving is by far the most common hair removal method both for men and women, mostly because it is quick, easy, painless, and affordable. But shaving and ingrown hairs are so closely related that some people refer to ingrown hairs as “razor bumps.” There are many reasons why ingrown hairs occur when you are shaving, including a dull razor, not using shaving cream or gel, and not preparing your skin pre and post-shave.
When you shave, you are using a sharp razor that cuts each hair so close to the level of the hair follicle and the skin that the hairs are not visible until they start growing back again. Because shaving is not ripping from the hair from its root, but actually slicing it, the top of the hair can become very sharp and pointy, which makes it easier for the hair to pierce the skin and revert back into the follicle when it is growing back.
On the other hand, shaving with a dull razor might actually be even worse for getting ingrown hairs. When the blade of a razor is no longer sharp it will not accomplish its mission (slicing your hairs) as effectively as it once did, so people tend to re-shave the area over and over until the hairs are gone, seriously irritating their skin in the process.
When your skin is irritated the small bumps that form on the surface don’t allow the hair to come out of the follicle, causing it to bend back and becoming ingrown. A dull razor is also most likely an old razor, which increases your chances of infection because it can deposit dead skin cells and other debris into your pores.
We often hear about multiple-blade razors in TV commercials claiming to be better in providing a smooth finish, but multiple blades might actually make you more prone to developing ingrown hairs. The idea behind a multiple-bladed razor is that as you shave, one razor lifts up the hair as the other ones come right behind it to slice it.
The problem with this method is that while you can get one of the closest shaves possible, the razor actually cuts the hair from beneath the skin, making it more likely to grow back inwards. On the other hand, single bladed razors gave only one blade that gently cuts the hair at a better angle without pulling it, reducing your risk for ingrown hairs and irritation.
Hair Removal Creams
Hair removal creams, also known as depilatory creams have been around for a while and are very popular in the hair removal category because they provide that similar smooth and velvety texture that waxing offers, without the painful ripping and tearing of waxing strips.
Hair removal creams contain a strong alkaline solution that dissolves the keratin and other protein bonds on the hairs it was placed on. This solution makes the hair strand so thin and weak that when you wipe the cream away, the hair comes out of the follicle painlessly.
These creams typically take 10-15 minutes to work, longer if the hairs are very thick or dark. Once the process is done you just wipe off the excess cream and hairs with a warm towel. Fans of hair removal creams love them because they are fast and relatively hands-off; you can apply the cream and do something else around the house while you wait.
Hair removal creams are thought to be a good alternative for people who are prone to getting ingrown hairs; because the cream is not cutting or slicing the hairs leaving them with a pointy end, it is less likely that they will bend and pierce the skin to become ingrown.
The downside to hair removal creams is that they contain very strong chemicals that can cause irritation and even allergic reactions in people with very sensitive skin. These strong chemicals become apparent as you apply the cream from the very strong and unpleasant odor they emit. Gentle creams for sensitive skin do exist and some people claim extraordinary results, but we recommend that you test the cream on a patch of skin to make sure you will not react badly to it.
Tweezing is a very popular hair removal method, particularly for small areas such as the eyebrows, and it can also be very useful for removing a pesky little hair or two that can show up at random places for time to time. Tweezing is similar to waxing in that when you pluck out a hair you are manually removing it from the root rather than cutting it, but with the difference that here you do it one by one.
In theory, tweezing shouldn’t cause any ingrown hairs because it is pulling the hair out from the root rather than cutting it at skin level, and you are minimizing the chances of inflammation and skin trauma that can happen during waxing because you are gentler.
However, tweezers tend sometimes cutting the hair halfway through instead of removing them all the way. When this happens, the hair that was partially pulled from the root and cut instead of pulled out can recede back into the skin or follicle causing it to become ingrown. Tweezing also increases your risk of infection because it can spread bacteria from one hair follicle to the other if you don’t clean it properly.
How To Prevent Ingrown Hairs
Ingrown hairs can be very hard to deal with after they happen because they easily get infected and can take a while to heal. While eventually, they do heal, sometimes you need to go to the doctor to get it professionally removed or wait a few weeks for it to come out by itself. So needless to say it is always better to prevent an ingrown hair from happening in the first place than trying to treat it after it happens. Here we give you a few simple steps you can take to greatly reduce your chances of getting an ingrown hair after your hair removal routine.
Do a quick Internet search of how to prevent ingrown hairs and the most common answer you’ll get is “exfoliation.” As you already know by now, ingrown hairs can happen for a few different reasons: curly or thick hair increases makes the hair more likely to bend or curl back into the skin, shaving or cutting the hair just below the skin surface can make it grow sideways and become entrapped, damaging the guiding tube out of the hair follicle can make the hair grow into the skin rather than out into the surface, and finally a clogged hair follicle can make it hard for the hair to come out to the surface, so it continues growing inwards.
Your skin is always regenerating – it is estimated that you shed around 40,000 skin cells every hour, this process is called desquamation and it happens to everybody. While many of these subtle skin cells fall off, the vast majority remain stuck to our skin. With so many dead skin cells pilling up every hour of every day, it is no wonder our hair follicles can get clogged up.
While we can’t always help the ways our little hairs decide to contort into and become ingrown hairs, it is much easier to control whether our hair follicles become clogged with dead skin cells or not. There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical, and both of them are good options for removing dead skin cells and clearing out your pores.
Physical exfoliation, also known as mechanical exfoliation refers to the act of removing dead skin cells manually with a brush, glove or scrub that contains tiny grains. Though they all have the same principle (scrubbing off dead skin cells), all physical exfoliators are different and some of them can be harsher on your skin than others.
Since the skin on your face is more sensitive than the rest of your body, it is important to search for an exfoliator or scrub that doesn’t contain particles that are too large and therefore too abrasive on your skin. Dermatologists suggest avoiding exfoliators made from crushed nuts, seashells, seeds, fruit pits or anything with sharp, uneven edges because these tend to break the skin, causing micro-tears.
For the rest of your body, the size of the granules will depend on your type of skin; people with oily or thick skin can benefit from scrubs with larger granules that help you wipe off those dead skin cells while moisturizing your skin with jojoba oil at the same time.
Exfoliating gloves also fall into the category of physical exfoliators and these can be a great option for people with very sensitive skin who need a gentler form of exfoliation. Exfoliation gloves are regular mitts made from coarse materials that let you scrub off the dead skin cells from your body without needed specialized exfoliator lotions or scrubs. You can simply rub the gloves with your favorite soap or cleanser.
Regardless of the type of physical exfoliator you choose, it is important to note that depending on the product you use; exfoliation can be quite harsh on your skin. While there is some controversy regarding how often you should exfoliate your skin, the general consensus is that once or twice per week is enough to keep your skin free of dead skin cell buildup (and preventing ingrown hairs!) without hurting yourself in the process.
Exfoliating to remove dead skin cells is not only great for preventing ingrown hairs; often exfoliating also prevents acne and blackheads, keeps your skin clear and smooth, and allows your skin to absorb products better.
Physical exfoliators, especially scrubs, can sometimes be too abrasive on some people’s skins particularly when we aren’t being gentle enough or using the wrong kind of scrub, causing dryness, redness, and even breakouts.
Though the name might sound scary, chemical exfoliators can be gentler on your skin than physical exfoliators. A chemical exfoliator contains small amounts of acids such as glycolic acid, BHA, AHA, and salicylic acid to remove the dead skin cells from your skin and allow for new and bright skin to come out from underneath.
Chemical exfoliators made from fruit extracts such as pineapple and papaya are great for sensitive skin and remove dead skin cells by breaking down their bonds and making them detach from your skin.
While any type of coarse material works for exfoliating your skin, it doesn’t mean that you should exfoliate with anything. If you want to make your own homemade exfoliating scrub keep in mind that larger and uneven-shaped granules can seriously hurt your skin, so stick to smaller particles such as sugar, salt, coffee, baking soda, etc, and even then take care.
The basic formula for creating a homemade exfoliator is one cup of granules, half a cup of liquids (coconut oil, milk, honey, lotion, etc.) and one to two tablespoons of add-ons (essential oils, tea, vanilla, ground ginger, etc.)
Since the face tends to be a very sensitive area, we recommend that you only use DIY exfoliators on your body. Add-ons such as cinnamon or lemon can be very irritating and can cause some serious damage, so consider using only mild ingredients and do a patch test to see how well your skin tolerates the scrub before you use it all over your body.
Though epilators are very effective and convenient hair removal devices, many people out there aren’t quite sure what an epilator really is. Epilators became very famous in the 1980s as one of the first electrical hair removal devices to become available to the public. These devices work similarly to waxing because they pull each individual hair out from the root, offering you smooth and long-lasting effects. Epilators have a rotating tweezer design that grabs and pulls hair simultaneously as it glides through the area you want to remove the hair, making it less likely to irritate your skin.
Epilators are great options for reducing your chances of getting ingrown hairs for a couple of reasons; first, they pull the hair out from the root rather than cutting, which makes it less likely to bend inwards. And second, though epilators are similar to waxing, the process is much gentler and uses less force, therefore causing less damage to the follicle.
Another great advantage of epilators is that some of the best models come with a few different interchangeable attachments such as exfoliating and deep massage brushes. This will not only help you prepare your skin before epilating, but it will also make the whole hair removal experience feel like a day at the salon! Some also have features which lift up the hairs, reducing the risk of ingrown hairs. Read more about how epilators compare to other hair removal methods.
After exfoliating, using a shaving cream is the most effective method for preventing ingrown hairs. Dry shaving, like with a travel shaver, is one of the most irritating things you can do to your skin; when you dry shave you are scraping the surface of the skin with the razor’s blades, which are only meant to cut the hairs. This will strip your skin from its natural oils and cause it to swell and irritate, creating the perfect stage for razor bumps (aka ingrown hairs).
To avoid ingrown hairs, use a shaving cream or gel (not soap as it can be very drying) that contains soothing ingredients such as aloe or shea butter that also moisturize your skin at the same time.
Laser Hair Removal
If no matter what you do you can’t seem to prevent ingrown hairs, you may want to consider getting laser hair removal. Laser hair removal works by damaging the hair follicle and making it unable to produce new hairs, and without hairs, you can’t get an ingrown one. It is best suited to dark hair on fair skin but can benefit a range of skin tones and hair colors. After enough sessions, it will give you long-term and even permanent hair reduction.
Though laser hair removal can be very expensive, some great at-home devices can be just as effective as professional treatments. If you are considering laser hair removal, check out our article on at home laser hair removal devices and find out which one is the right for you.
How To Get Rid Of Ingrown Hairs
Sometimes, even after taking all the precautions in the world, we still get a pesky little ingrown hair when we least expect it (like right before that trip to the beach you’ve been waiting for weeks). So for those times, treating the ingrown hair before it gets infected or turns into a cyst is vital. Here are some tips and tricks on how to get rid of an ingrown hair.
Extracting The Hair
If you see an ingrown hair that looks like it is almost at the surface but not quite, you can try gently removing the hair yourself. To do this, start by exfoliating the area to scrub off dead skin cells that might be clogging the pore. Since the area is likely irritated, do this gently to avoid causing any further damage.
After you have gently exfoliated the skin, place a warm (not hot!) compress for a few minutes to soften the hair and the skin around it and open your pores. Sometimes, just by doing that the hair will spring back to the surface and you’ll be able to very carefully pluck it out with a pair of sterilized tweezers or a needle.
If the hair is too deep and you can’t remove it with a pair of tweezers, don’t force it or pierce the skin, this will only make it worse and can cause an infection and scarring. Continue applying a warm compress twice a day until the hair breaks the surface and then gently remove it. Clean the area with rubbing alcohol and keep it clean and moisturized.
Ingrown Hair Removal Products
If you get ingrown hairs very often, it may be worth it to invest in an ingrown hair-fighting product. Such products are chemical exfoliators that quickly vanish the dead skin cells trapping the ingrown hair beneath the surface, making it easier for you to pluck it out.
Since some acid-based chemical exfoliators can be very abrasive, use them with caution – particularly on sensitive skin areas such as the face and the bikini line.
Seek Professional Help
Ingrown hairs sometimes get infected and some severe infections need topical and/or oral antibiotics before it clears out. If you have an ingrown hair bump that has grown into a cyst, it’s becoming increasingly painful or won’t get better it is likely that you may need to get it professionally extracted by a dermatologist.
Ingrown hairs can be very annoying, especially if you are very prone to getting them. Because these pesky little hairs can be very painful and even ruin your plans if they get infected it is always better to prevent them rather than to treat them after they have happened. Consider getting an epilator if you are prone to developing ingrown hairs and don’t forget to exfoliate often to remove dead skin cells build up.
Do you get ingrown hairs often? Let us know in the comments what’s your strategy for preventing and removing them!