Is it a bug bite? Is it a pimple? Nope — it's an ingrown hair, and it's here to ruin your life. OK, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. Getting an ingrown hair isn't a serious condition, but it can be an annoying skin situation nevertheless. Learning how to prevent the unsightly and painful bumps from cropping up — and knowing how to treat them when they do — is the best way to alleviate the physical (and emotional) pain.
What Is an Ingrown Hair in the First Place?
An ingrown hair is exactly what it sounds like: A hair that, instead of growing straight out of the follicle, makes a U-turn, curls back into the skin and continues to grow. The body reacts to the trapped hair as if it's a foreign object, which can cause pain, inflammation and even infection.
Whenever hair breaks near or beneath the skin, it can lead to an ingrown, which is why hair removal — shaving and waxing in particular — is a primary cause of ingrown hairs.
Anyone can get an ingrown hair almost anywhere on the body, but people with curly hair and from certain ethnic groups, particularly African Americans, are more prone to them because of the way the hair naturally curls, according to Sherry Shieh, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia University.
The most frequent places for women to get ingrown hairs are the areas they shave most often: the bikini line, armpits and legs. Men usually see ingrown hairs in the beard area and at the nape of the neck. No matter where an ingrown shows up, they rarely go away on their own, so learning proper treatment and prevention is the best way to get relief.
How to Treat an Ingrown Hair
In some instances, especially if the ingrown hair is infected, you may need to visit a dermatologist who can help reduce inflammation, remove the hair and prescribe an antibiotic cream as necessary.
"If the ingrown is small and superficial and it's not causing you pain, it's something you can simply treat at home," Dr. Shieh explains. "Treating an ingrown on your own isn't that different than treating a pimple."
Start with a hot compress on the affected area. Then apply an anti-inflammatory hydrocortisone cream to the ingrown hair twice a day for a few days. This will help reduce swelling and allow the ingrown hair to grow out on its own.
"Just avoid benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, which can irritate the armpit and bikini area," Sheih says.
If you can see the hair, that's when you have Shieh's permission to coax it out. She recommends using a sterilized needle to bring the hair to the surface, then pluck it out of the follicle with clean tweezers. Afterward, apply an antibiotic cream. Don't get too tweezer happy, though.
"Avoid serious excavation attempts," warns Shieh. "Digging into the skin to remove an ingrown only invites trouble. You'll be introducing new bacteria into the open pore that can worsen the problem or result in a scar."
How to Prevent Ingrown Hairs From Coming Back
When it comes to the prevention of ingrown hairs, going au naturel and letting hair grow out is one strategy, albeit not particularly popular. According to Shieh, laser hair removal is the best choice for long-term treatment and prevention, especially for those prone to developing ingrown hairs.
But if you don't want to give up on shaving just yet, Shieh has some tips to prevent ingrown hair:
- Exfoliate a few times a week and keep skin moisturized with a gentle alpha-hydroxy lotion, which can help remove dead skin and hairs that clog hair follicles.
- Postpone shaving until the end of your shower; the hot water will help open the hair follicle.
- Always use a moisturizing, fragrance-free shaving cream, gel or foam.
- Shave in the direction of the hair growth, not against it.
- Avoid shaving over hair that's infected.
- Change your razor every one to two weeks. And invest in a good one — no disposables.
- Keep your razor dry when you're not using it to prevent bacteria buildup.
If you're still struggling with ingrown hair, Shieh recommends visiting a dermatologist who can help you come up with a hair-removal strategy and treatment plan that's best for your hair and skin type.