Ingrown hairs can be painful and a nuisance. They typically affect people with thick, curly hair, and can become infected if left untreated. But, how should they be treated and can they be prevented?
Preventing ingrown hairs can often be managed at home, though there are times when a visit to the doctor may be appropriate.
This article explores ways to treat and prevent ingrown hairs, to reduce discomfort for people who experience them.
What are ingrown hairs?
Ingrown hairs can appear anywhere on the body and may become infected if they are not treated.
An ingrown hair is a hair that has curled back into the skin instead of growing out of the skin’s surface. It is most common in people with thick, coarse, or curly hair types. Medically an ingrown hair is known as “pseudofolliculitis barbae.”
An ingrown hair can occur anywhere on the body. Ingrown hairs commonly occur in areas where the skin is shaved or subject to a lot of friction, including:
- pubic area
Signs and symptoms of an ingrown hair are:
- itching skin or irritation surrounding the hair
- razor burn
The site of the ingrown hair will form into a raised bump on the skin that may begin to look like a pimple. The bump will often turn reddish, become irritated and sensitive, and may fill with pus.
What causes ingrown hairs?
Anything that does not let the hair grow normally can cause ingrown hairs, and it is usually for one of the following reasons:
Improper hair removal
The most common cause of ingrown hairs is an improper shaving technique. Cutting hair very close to the skin creates a very sharp tip on the end of each of the hairs.
Most of these hairs will grow back out without a problem. However, some hairs can curl back on themselves and grow into the skin. When this happens, the body responds to the hair as if it were an intruder, causing inflammation, which is the typical symptom of an ingrown hair.
Shaving is not the only way ingrown hairs occur. Waxing and plucking hairs out also commonly cause ingrown hairs.
Plucked hair grows back through the follicle. As such, it may not make it all the way to the surface of the skin before turning and clogging the follicle.
It is also possible for hair follicles to become clogged by:
- dead skin
- dirt and debris.
When this happens, the hair in the follicle can become stuck or grow sideways into the skin, causing an ingrown hair. In some cases, the hair can be seen growing under the surface of the skin.
Friction caused by wearing tight clothing for extended periods of time can also cause ingrown hairs.
The friction caused by body movement throughout the day can also rub hairs against the skin continuously. This causes the hairs to turn around and push back into the follicle.
How to treat an ingrown hair at home
Ingrown hairs are irritating, but most of the time they can easily be treated in the home.
Using a warm washcloth or soft toothbrush
Applying a warm washcloth to the ingrown hair and rubbing in a circular motion may help to uncurl the hair.
If waiting it out is not an option, there are other methods people may want to try. Hairs that have grown back into the follicle can be gently coaxed out using a warm washcloth and soft toothbrush.
After soaking a washcloth in warm water, apply it to the ingrown hair to warm and relax the pores and follicles. Rubbing the washcloth in a gentle circular motion may help uncurl the hair.
If this does not work, rubbing a very soft toothbrush in a similar motion over the area may help unclog the follicle and release the trapped hair.
The first step to treating an ingrown hair is to stop doing things that may irritate it. People may need to stop shaving, waxing, or plucking the area around the ingrown hair.
Scratching an itchy ingrowing hair should also be avoided. Also, people should wear loose clothing on areas surrounding the hair to avoid friction.
These simple practices are often enough to make the ingrown hairs go away on their own. When a hair grows to about 10 millimeters in length, it will usually release itself from the follicle.
Once any part of the hair appears above the skin line, a sterile needle or tweezers can be used to pull the hair straight.
Only do this once the hair is above the skin. Digging into the skin to pull the hair out can cause an infection.
It is also important not to pluck the hair out, as this increases the chance that the hair will be ingrown again as it grows back. The inflamed area surrounding the hair needs time to heal completely before removing the hair again.
Use gentle soaps to clean areas around the ingrown hair and prevent infection. Using natural exfoliates around the hair can also help remove dead skin cells. Exfoliating also helps clear the inflamed and irritated skin around the hair.
Preventing ingrown hairs
Sometimes ingrown hairs are irritating to deal with or become a regular problem. When this happens, some people stop removing hair in the problem area altogether.
Individuals who get ingrown hairs on their necks from shaving may switch to trimming instead. Problematic pubic hairs can be cut short instead of removed entirely to help prevent ingrown hairs. There are also a few products and treatments available to prevent these ingrown hairs.
However, if the problem is persistent, people should see their doctor for other preventive measures. These methods can include intense pulse light therapy or prescription creams to reduce hair growth. Such preventive measure can help decrease the risk of deeper infections and scarring.
Over the counter products
Diluted tea tree oil may help to kill the bacteria and bring down the swelling of an ingrown hair.
There are also some over the counter products that may help stop or treat ingrown hairs.
Using creams with salicylic acid can help open the pores and follicles, preventing them from clogging.
Some reports note that diluted tea tree essential oil may help ingrowing hairs by:
- killing bacteria
- reducing redness
- bringing down swelling
Some people regularly use homemade exfoliators to reduce ingrown hairs. Certain ingredients can be scrubbed into the skin to reduce dead skin cells. These products include:
- baking soda
Preparing for hair removal
Properly preparing for hair removal can also help prevent ingrown hairs. Before shaving, wash the area thoroughly with a gentle soap. Use a moisturizing shaving cream or gel to reduce friction.
When shaving, use a fresh razor that will make precise cuts. Dull blades leave jagged cuts that may increase the risk of ingrown hairs. Avoiding a close shave can also be helpful.
Alternative hair removal options
Some people turn to other ways of removing hair to avoid the risks of ingrown hairs that come with shaving, waxing, or plucking. These include:
- Laser hair removal: This can be an expensive process, but the results are usually semi-permanent hair loss and no ingrown hairs. Laser hair removal damages the hair follicle at a deep level, preventing hair from growing at all.
- Chemical hair removal: These products are also an option for some.
- Electrolysis: This is another more permanent form of hair removal. It is designed to destroy the root of the hair and requires several sessions.
Any of these methods may irritate the skin and should be and discussed with a dermatologist before use.
When to see a doctor
In most cases, ingrown hairs are treated at home and do not require medical attention. There are a few times when a doctor may need to be involved.
If the ingrown hair becomes infected, the bumps may continue to grow and fill with more pus. They may be more painful, red, and irritated than ever before. People who experience ingrown hair over large areas may require medical treatment as well.
If an ingrown hair becomes infected, the person may need to visit the doctor for treatment. A doctor may prescribe antibiotic ointments, steroid creams, or medicated washes to use on the area. In severe cases, a doctor may refer a person to a skin specialist.
Use topical treatments on the affected area only, as they can cause dry skin and other side effects. For severe infections, a doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics.
Sometimes an ingrown hair is not infected, but it is very persistent. In cases like these, doctors may prescribe retinoids. Retinoids can help remove dead skin cells more quickly than just washing and exfoliating. Retinoids are not for everyone. Every medical treatment option should be discussed with a doctor or dermatologist before use.