How to Prevent and Treat Ingrown Hairs

Ingrown Hair Facts & Prevention

a woman's smooth legs and arms
Exfoliate and be careful shaving to avoid ingrown hairs. Photo: Andreas Kuehn/Stone Collection (Getty Images)

What are ingrown hairs?

Simply put, an ingrown hair is a hair that gets trapped underneath the skin.  This can happen to anyone, but it occurs more often in people who have curly or tightly curled hair follicles from which hair grows.

Why you might get ingrown hairs

When hair follicles are oval-shaped or flat, the hair tends to be curly or tightly coiled.  The hairs will emerge from these curved follicles and grow parallel to the skin surface instead of out and away from the skin.

Hair that is cut will create a sharp, pointed tip that can curl back and puncture the skin and start growing inward. 

In women, ingrown hairs are common in areas that have coarse hair, such as the bikini area, armpits and legs.  Women with curly and kinky hair are especially at risk for developing ingrown hairs when removing hair from these areas. You might see a small bump with dark brown or black pinpoint underneath the skin or get multiple bumps around the hair follicles where skin has been frequently shaved, tweezed or waxed.

While not considered a serious medical condition, ingrown hairs can lead to uneven skin tone, post inflammatory hyperpigmentation, skin infections, scarring and sometimes even keloid scars.  

The ingrown hairs can irritate and inflame the skin, causing a raised reddish or tan bump or multiple bumps that are sometimes itchy and can get infected.  This condition is called pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB) or razor bumps.

  The condition is common in black and Latin men, but sometimes women, especially those who shave, can get PFB.

When women of color tweeze or pluck facial hairs, the hair can break below the surface and also produce this inflammatory response.  Other hair removal methods like electrolysis and waxing can also cause ingrown hairs.

 

Other Causes of Ingrown Hairs:

Women with excessive hair growth can also be prone to ingrown hairs.

Ingrown hairs can be caused by the hair follicles being clogged by dead skin cells, dirt and sebum.

Treatment

When ingrown hairs and bumps develop, don’t squeeze or scratch them or you could leave a scar or cause discoloration.

Soak a washcloth in one part white vinegar to one part water and soak (or hold the cloth on) the affected area(s) for 10 minutes.

If you are able to extract ingrown hairs on your own, wipe the area with alcohol and use a sterile needle or tweezers to gently lift out the ingrown hair.  If done incorrectly, however, this can damage the skin.  Don’t pluck the dislodged hair or cut with a scissors.  Instead apply an antiseptic such as tea tree oil to the area. 

You might want to consider having a dermatologist remove ingrown hairs, especially if it has become a chronic or more serious problem.  A dermatologist can also prescribe treatments that include anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial agents, as well as treatments to improve skin tone:

  • Topical antibiotics which are sometimes used with benzoyl peroxide to relieve infections caused by scratching.
  • Oral antibiotics  are usually prescribed for more severe infections.
  • Corticosteroids -  topical steroid ointments can help control inflammation.
  • Retinoids   to remove dead skin cells and pigment changes.
  • Skin lighteners (like hydroquinoine) are often used in conjunction with retinoids to fade discolorations caused by inflammation.

Ingrown Hair Prevention

  1. If hair growth is minimal and doesn’t bother you, leave it alone.  Sometimes an ingrown hair will dislodge on its own if you regularly exfoliate and take care of the skin.
  2. Avoid hair removal methods that pull the hair from the skin.  You may need to switch to using a depilatory (cream hair remover).
  3. Do hair removal after showering to soften the hair and make it easier to remove.
  4. It's also good idea to exfoliate before shaving.
  5. Regularly exfoliate the skin and keep the skin moisturized.   Gently exfoliating the skin will help remove dead skin cells and keep the ingrown hairs from developing.
  1. Cleansers and washes containing salicylic acid or glycolic acid help the skin shed dead skin cells, although you should be careful using these acids if you have sensitive skin.
  2. If you have sensitive skin, don’t over-exfoliate, as this will just irritate the skin. 
  3. Don't use loofahs to exfoliate the skin as they can breed bacteria.
  4. After cleansing and exfoliating the skin use an antiseptic like tea tree oil, witch hazel or aloe vera gel to sooth the skin and protect it from infection.

Further reading on ingrown hairs and prevention.