How to Prevent and Treat Ingrown Hair

An ingrown hair refers to a hair follicle that has been shaved, waxed, or plucked, and which then grows back into or under the skin rather than breaking the skin’s surface. Ingrown hairs are commonly found on the face, armpit, and groin areas; while they are not necessarily dangerous, they can be painful and unsightly. An ingrown hair cyst can also become infected, especially if you scratch or otherwise irritate or break open the cyst and surrounding skin. 

What causes ingrown hairs?

When hair is cut or otherwise removed, it will tend to grow back. If the skin above that hair follicle doesn’t open as it should, the hair follicle might push against it and then grow into the skin itself.

The direction of hair growth is also a common cause of ingrown hairs; curly or coarse hair is more likely to curve while growing under the skin rather than growing through the pore above it. Tweezing or shaving can also leave a large fragment of the hair follicle in place which can grow into the skin.

If a person pulls their skin while shaving, it can also cause a hair follicle fragment to grow into the skin rather than through it. Shaving against the direction of hair growth can also push hair into the skin as it’s cut, resulting in ingrown hairs.

What does it look like when you get an ingrown hair?

When a hair follicle cannot break the skin above it or doesn’t grow through a pore as it should, it creates a cyst or irritation under the skin. This cyst can be red, pink, white, or brown and often continues to grow until it’s very noticeable. In many cases, ingrown hair cysts can also be sensitive or downright painful to the touch.

It’s not unusual for someone to confuse an ingrown hair cyst on their face with an acne cyst, since the two look very similar. However, note that you can have just one ingrown hair whereas most acne sufferers will see large patches of acne across their face. Ingrown hair cysts are also typically more rounded and without the “head” common with acne pimples.

Complications related to ingrown hair cysts

Ingrown hairs are not typically dangerous, as said, but they can lead to some skin complications that might require the attention of a dermatologist. These complications include:

  • Bacterial infection, typically from scratching the cyst and breaking open the skin, allowing bacteria to settle into this area
  • Permanent scarring from the skin breaking open and also from scratching
  • Skin darkening in the area of the cyst (known as hyperpigmentation)
  • Unsightly bumps along the area of the cyst

How to prevent ingrown hairs

Avoiding shaving, tweezing, waxing, or otherwise removing hair is the best way to prevent ingrown hairs, but this isn’t always an option for everyone! If you must shave or otherwise remove hair on your face or body, note some tips on how to prevent ingrown hairs:

  • Use warm water on the skin before shaving or removing hair. Warm water will open up the skin’s pores so that you can extract more of the hair follicle, reducing the risk of having that hair grow back into the skin.
  • High-quality, lubricating shaving cream or gel will soften hairs to be shaved, so that they’re easier to cut and remove. Avoid using soap or other products that don’t soften hair when shaving.
  • Avoid pulling the skin taut while shaving or tweezing. This will ensure the hair doesn’t grow back into that area of tight skin.
  • Always shave downward or in the direction of hair growth, rather than against it.
  • Apply a warm compress after shaving or hair removal, to keep the pores open and allow the hair follicles to grow through the skin rather than into it.

How to treat ingrown hairs

If you suspect you have ingrown hairs, avoid picking or scratching at the cyst. This will only irritate the skin and increase the risk of infection. Instead, consider some simple tips for treating ingrown hairs:

  • Wash the affected area with a warm, wet washcloth or with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Use circular motions as you wash, as this will help the skin relax while opening the pores and encouraging the hair to come through its surface. Do this before bedtime, so your skin has time to open up without being irritated by tight clothes or lots of movement.
  • If you notice hair loops above the skin line, use a sterile needle to pull the end of the hair out of the skin.
  • Use warm compresses on the affected area often throughout the day, to keep skin soft and pores open. 
  • Antiseptic solutions, such as tea tree oil, can help protect the skin from the risk of infection while also encouraging the hair to reach the surface of the skin.

There are also many over-the-counter creams that are designed to treat ingrown hairs and which encourage healthy skin growth and healing. Be sure to use these according to the package directions and avoid applying them over broken or irritated skin. Also, use extra caution when applying such creams around the groin area.

Will an ingrown hair heal itself?

While some ingrown hairs might become very noticeable and even downright itchy and painful, many such hairs eventually grow out of the skin as they should, on their own and without treatment. A hair follicle might even die off, and the ingrown cyst then heals. 

However, if you have an ingrown hair cyst that lasts for several days, is very bothersome and painful, or otherwise doesn’t heal on its own or with home remedies, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist. A dermatologist might pull the hair from the skin safely, or prescribe medication that will help bring the hair follicle out from under the skin.

A dermatologist can also note if the ingrown hair cyst is infected or irritated. Prescription skin creams can calm the irritated skin and antibiotics, or other medications can fight infection and keep it from growing or traveling in the body.

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