Ingrown Hair: Why It Happens and What to Do

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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Ingrown hairs usually occur when hairs that are shaved, waxed, or tweezed out curl back into the skin, instead of growing outward. This can result in tender red or brown bumps that may respond to home care. However, without proper treatment, ingrown hairs can lead to infection and scarring. For that reason, it is important to contact a skin doctor, or dermatologist, for ingrown hairs that do not come out on their own.

This article discusses what causes ingrown hairs, symptoms, where they occur, at-home treatment, and when to contact a doctor.

What is an ingrown hair?

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An ingrown hair is a hair that gets trapped in the skin instead of growing outward. These hairs are most often caused by hair removal methods such as shaving, waxing, or tweezing.

In some cases, these bumps can become infected or cause a cyst to form. An infection of the skin around the hair follicle is called folliculitis.

People who have coarse or curly hair are more likely to get ingrown hairs. Sometimes, you can see the hair underneath the skin. However, it is important not to try to tweeze it out yourself, particularly if you notice any symptoms of infection.

Symptoms

When hairs grow inward toward the skin, they can cause irritation that creates small, red bumps on the skin. These bumps can be itchy and resemble acne.

Ingrown hairs can appear after using different hair removal methods. However, not everyone who uses hair removal methods will get ingrown hairs.

Some common symptoms of ingrown hairs include:

  • visible hair underneath the skin
  • small, red bumps on the skin
  • itchy, tender skin
  • cysts, or sacs of fluid beneath the skin
  • pimples filled with pus

If an ingrown hair develops, it is important not to pick at or irritate it further by shaving, waxing, or squeezing the area. This can cause further inflammation or increase the risk of infection.

Symptoms of infection

If ingrown hairs become infected, medical treatment may be necessary to treat the infection and prevent possible complications, including scarring or hair loss.

Contact your primary care physician or dermatologist right away if the following symptoms occur or do not improve with home care:

  • yellow pus draining from the area of the ingrown hair
  • pain, warmth, or tenderness in the affected area
  • fever
  • chills

It is also important to contact a doctor if you continue to get multiple ingrown hairs or if you are unsure if the problem is an ingrown hair. It is common for people to mistake flat warts or the symptoms of a condition called tinea barbae for ingrown hairs.

Your healthcare professional will discuss treatment options for ingrown hairs or ingrown hair cysts. They can also provide guidance on what causes ingrown hairs and how to prevent them.

Causes

Ingrown hairs most often result from shaving, waxing, tweezing, or threading. These hair removal methods cut the hair close to the skin, allowing the hair to curve back inward as it grows.

People with tightly curled hair are more prone to ingrown hairs because the curved shape of the hair follicle may cause hair to grow sideways into the skin.

The Canadian Dermatology Association outlines these other ways in which hair removal techniques can cause ingrown hair:

  • When shaving, pulling the skin taut can cause the ends of the hairs to retract under the skin.
  • Shaving also cuts hairs on an angle, making them more likely to grow on a curve back into the skin.
  • Even though waxing pulls the hair out by the root, the hair that grows back may grow sideways instead of straight back out.

Shaving too close to the skin or using a blunt razor can also make you more prone to ingrown hairs. Doctors also recommend moisturizing and exfoliating the skin, which helps clear dead skin cells and encourages hairs to grow in the right direction.

Any area where hair grows can be at risk of developing ingrown hairs.

Where ingrown hairs occur

Ingrown hairs can occur anywhere you use hair removal techniques. Common locations for ingrown hairs include the:

  • face and neck
  • armpits
  • legs and inner thighs
  • pubic area
  • chest
  • back

People who shave their beard area and upper neck regularly are more likely to get multiple ingrown hairs, which can lead to a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae.

Wherever ingrown hairs develop, it is important not to pick at or attempt to remove ingrown hairs yourself. This can irritate the ingrown hair and make the area vulnerable to infection.

When to contact a doctor

Ingrown hairs will sometimes resolve on their own if you allow the hair to grow. However, if an ingrown hair persists, or if it becomes more swollen or tender, it could indicate an infection that requires medical treatment.

A dermatologist is a doctor who specializes in skin care. They can examine your ingrown hair and evaluate any other symptoms you may be experiencing. Your dermatologist may try to free the ingrown hair or inject the area with an intralesional steroid to reduce inflammation. They may also prescribe a topical steroid or a topical or oral antibiotic.

If you receive a diagnosis of folliculitis, your dermatologist can prescribe medication to treat the infection.

Your dermatologist can also provide tips on how to prevent folliculitis and recommend shaving techniques that can help prevent ingrown hairs.

If you have recurring or widespread ingrown hairs, particularly ones that develop folliculitis, your dermatologist may recommend long-term hair removal treatments, such as electrolysis or laser hair removal.

Treatments

The first step in treating ingrown hairs is to allow the area of hair to grow for at least 30 days up to 3 months.

You can treat ingrown hairs at home by applying a warm washcloth several times per day. Applying a gentle exfoliant can help release the hair. It is important not to try to coax the hair out too forcefully or use needles or tweezers to try to remove the hair. This can result in irritation and increase the risk of infection.

Applying a mild acne medication, such as benzoyl peroxide, to an ingrown hair can help decrease the risk of infection.

Using over-the-counter creams that contain alpha hydroxy acids, salicylic acid, or glycolic acid in between hair removal sessions can help keep the skin smooth and decrease the likelihood of ingrown hairs forming.

Your doctor may prescribe medication to help treat an ingrown hair and the symptoms it may be causing.

The Canadian Dermatology Association lists these types of medications that dermatologists may recommend or prescribe:

  • Retinoid cream: This can help remove dead skin cells and generate new ones. It can also reduce the appearance of dark spots and thickened skin that can occur with ingrown hairs.
  • Topical steroid cream: Available over the counter or at prescription strength, a steroid cream can help reduce inflammation around the ingrown hair.
  • Antibiotics: In cases of folliculitis, your dermatologist may prescribe antibiotics to clear the infection. This may be a topical medication that you apply to the skin or, for more severe infections, an oral medication that you take by mouth.
  • Topical creams that slow hair growth: Doctors may prescribe a cream called eflornithine hydrochloride (Vaniqa) that can decrease the rate of hair growth.

How to prevent ingrown hairs

The most effective way to prevent ingrown hairs is to let an area of hair grow without using removal techniques.

If you prefer to remove hair from certain areas, the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom recommends these steps to help prevent ingrown hair:

  • scrubbing gently with an exfoliant to clear out dead skin cells and release trapped hairs
  • wetting your skin with warm water
  • using a shaving gel
  • using an electric razor, if possible
  • if you prefer a blade razor, using a new single-blade razor each time you shave
  • not shaving too close to the skin
  • shaving in the direction of the hair growth
  • using as few strokes as possible to shave
  • rinsing the razor after each stroke
  • applying a cool, damp washcloth to the area after shaving
  • trying non-shaving hair removal methods, such as depilatory creams
  • considering long-term hair removal procedures, such as laser hair removal or electrolysis

If you have ingrown hairs, it is important not to shave over the area, as this can cause further irritation.

Summary

Ingrown hairs occur when hairs grow inward toward the skin instead of outward. This can cause irritation that results in bumps that resemble acne.

Ingrown hairs typically result from hair removal techniques such as shaving, plucking, or waxing. These practices keep the hair very short and close to the skin, giving it more opportunity to grow inward. People with very coarse, curly hair are more likely to develop ingrown hairs.

The best way to prevent ingrown hairs is to avoid any type of hair removal. For those who do choose to shave or remove their hair in a different way, tips to prevent ingrown hairs include shaving in the direction of the hair growth, using a new razor each time you shave, and using moisturizers and exfoliants to clear out dead skin cells and hair.

If the area of an ingrown hair becomes swollen, warm, tender, or pus-producing, you may have an infection called folliculitis. A dermatologist can diagnose folliculitis and prescribe treatments such as antibiotics to clear the infection.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Jan 31
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