We’ve all seen the wild videos of just how bad ingrown hairs can get, so what’s the deal with these things? Between zits, blackheads, acne, and everything else that pesters our bodies, it’s hard to keep up on how to deal with what. While ingrown hairs may be similar in appearance to pimples, they’re definitely not the same thing. We’re clearing up other misconceptions and filling you in on everything you need to know—especially how to get rid of them.
What even are ingrown hairs?
Commonly referred to as “razor bumps,” ingrown hairs are a condition in which hair grows back into a follicle or grows sideways within the skin, according to Dr. Nada Elbuluk, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor at the New York University Department of Dermatology. Rather than the hair rising up from your skin, these hairs curl around and grow back in.
Dr. Elbuluk says they “often look like small round bumps on the skin which have a hair trapped in them.” Their color depends on the person’s baseline skin, but these bumps can be anywhere from pink and red to brown. For those who shave, these commonly pop up on areas in which we shave, like our legs, as well as our bikini area and armpits. However, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Vicki Rapaport says that ingrown hairs can occur in areas that haven’t ever been shaved, or on someone who doesn’t shave at all.
What actually causes them?
Even though anyone can get ingrown hairs, shaving, waxing, and threading do increase your chances. Shaving is especially risky because you’re breaking off hair unevenly with a sharp tip. Waxing tends to lessen ingrown hairs. “Dead skin cells and increased sebum [oil] production within a hair follicle can also contribute to the formation of ingrown hairs,” Dr. Elbuluk says.
Additionally, people with coarse and/or curly hair are more likely to get ingrown hairs. However, despite these factors, licensed cosmetologist M.E. Nesser agrees with Dr. Rapaport that everyone is prone to ingrown hairs, whether they shave or not!
How can you prevent them?
While there is no 100% guaranteed way to avoid ingrown hairs, here are some tips from Dr. Elbuluk and Dr. Rapaport to lessen the chance of getting them:
- If you don’t mind not shaving, let your hair grow.
- Choose a razor that’s sharp and single-bladed. “Sharp razors help swiftly and cleanly ‘cut’ the hair so it is a bit less likely to get stuck inside the follicle opening,” Dr. Rapaport says.
- Shave in the direction of your hair growth to also get a better chance of cleanly and swiftly cutting the hair.
- Avoid shaving over the same area multiple times if you have sensitive skin. Dr. Rapaport says doing so can irritate the skin, causing swelling that allows the follicle to open and allow for a hair to get trapped.
- Before shaving, make sure your skin is wet and try using a moisturizing shaving cream, gel, or foam. This helps make the area smooth and easy to glide over!
How can they be treated?
Ingrown hairs can be simple to treat, but if you’re not careful, you put yourself at risk for infection and even scars. If you’re at all hesitant to tend to your ingrown hair yourself, it’s always best to contact your doctor or dermatologist first. Otherwise, there are a few different ways to go about treatment.
Oftentimes an ingrown hair will go away on its own; however, the period of time it takes to go away can vary. According to Dr. Rapaport, an ingrown hair can stick around from anywhere to one to 10 days… or longer, meaning never.
“Sometimes I see an ingrown hair on a patient that has coiled around itself over and over and never actually stopped growing, forming a ball under the skin,” Dr. Rapaport says. She recommends consulting a doctor if the ingrown hair becomes painful, big, red, hard, or stubborn.
If this is not the case and the hair is clearly visible, you can remove it yourself. “Use very pointy tweezers and gently lift the hair out through the skin that is covering it,” Dr. Rapaport says. While doing so, try not to pierce the skin too much, as this causes inflammation.
If you try to remove the hair and it’s not coming out, STOP! Dr. Rapaport says you can try again the next day, but do not continue attempting if it’s not releasing. “Be patient and wait for it to grow out itself, which it normally does,” she says.
A lot of times an ingrown hair turns into what looks and feels like a regular pimple and can even be “popped.” Dr. Rapaport explains that as the hair is destroyed by the body, in its place, a tiny infection or pustule is formed. “It is a bit like a whitehead, but with slightly more infectious contents,” she says. You can choose to pop the bump with your fingers as you would with a normal whitehead. “Once popped, place a cotton ball soaked in hydrogen peroxide over it for five minutes, then cover it with polysporin and a Band-Aid,” Dr. Rapaport says.
After either tweezing the hair or popping what used to be the ingrown hair, wait until the next day to see how it’s healed. Dr. Rapaport says if it looks better, let it continue to heal on its own, and if it looks worse, contact your doctor or dermatologist. Dr. Elbuluk says, “Your dermatologist can also recommend a regimen of antibacterial washes and creams that can help calm the inflammation in the area and treat any infection that can be present.”
In order to avoid worsening of ingrown hairs, Dr. Elbuluk recommends avoiding shaving an area that has an ingrown hair. “Shaving could cause increased irritation to the skin and make the ingrown hair worse or possibly cause it to become infected,” she says.”
While they may seem like no biggie, ingrown hairs can be extremely tricky, so it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. Even knowing how to shave your legs effectively can make a huge difference in preventing them.