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How to Prevent and Treat Painful Ingrown Hairs

When you shave, your razor cuts your hair at an angle and leaves a sharp edge. So that pointy little hair can work its way back into your skin. That’s what’s called an ingrown hair (pseudofolliculitis). It can make your skin red, irritated, painful and itchy. Hair can also get trapped under your skin and cause razor bumps (pseudofolliculitis barbae).

Coarse, curly hair is most likely to cause ingrown hairs. That’s because these hairs grow in a spiral, making them more likely to push back into the skin. They are most common in the face and neck of men, particularly men with dark skin. 

“But they can crop up in anyone, in any place you shave,” said Colton Redding, DO, a family medicine provider with Banner Health. You might find them in the face, neck, underarms, leg or bikini area.

What causes ingrown hairs?

You may be more likely to have ingrown hairs if you:

  • Shave too closely
  • Shave against the direction your hair grows
  • Use a dull razor
  • Wear tight clothing that rubs against your skin
  • Wax or pluck your hair
  • Have a buildup of dead skin

How you can avoid ingrown hairs

“The most effective way to avoid ingrown hairs is to stop shaving or removing hair, but this isn’t always practical,” Dr. Redding said. 

If you want to continue shaving, these tips can help you avoid ingrown hairs:

  • Choose a high-quality razor with multiple blades and a pivoting head. Replace blades regularly.
  • Select a shaving cream or gel that’s right for your skin type and contains moisturizing ingredients like aloe vera or glycerin.
  • Wash the area with non-abrasive soap and a rough washcloth to remove dead skin cells and unclog pores. If you already have ingrown hairs, massage the area gently with a washcloth or a soft toothbrush.
  • Rinse the area with warm water, which helps soften the hair and open the pores.
  • Massage the area with your shaving cream of choice, using a moderate amount of lather. Avoid shaving on dry areas — reapply and lather as often as you need.
  • Use a sharp razor and shave in the same direction as hair growth (with the grain). Use short, even strokes. Do not pull your skin taut or press down with the razor. Try to avoid shaving over the same area twice or shaving too closely.
  • Rinse your razor frequently.
  • When you’re finished shaving, rinse the area with water and apply a soothing aftershave or moisturizer. Avoid products with alcohol or fragrances since they can irritate your skin.
  • Exfoliate regularly to remove dead skin cells and unclog pores.
  • Moisturize daily.
  • Avoid tight clothing that can rub against your skin and irritate it.
  • Don’t apply antiperspirant right after shaving your underarms, since it can irritate your skin.

Laser hair removal can also help prevent ingrown hairs. With this method, you remove the hairs that could potentially grow back into your skin.

How to treat ingrown hairs

If you get ingrown hairs, you’ll want to take care of them. Otherwise, you might get a bacterial infection. And longstanding ingrown hairs could cause darker skin and scarring. “These complications aren’t common, but they can happen,” Dr. Redding said.

You can treat them with:

  • Exfoliation: Exfoliation can release trapped hairs and reduce inflammation. You can use scrubs, an exfoliating glove or a soft-bristled brush.
  • Moisturizer: Use a fragrance-free moisturizer designed for sensitive skin twice a day to prevent irritation and help the area heal.
  • Warm compresses: Soak a clean cloth in warm water and apply it to the ingrown hair for a few minutes three times a day.
  • Tea tree oil: This oil can reduce redness and irritation.
  • Aloe vera gel: Apply a thin layer to the ingrown hair, let it dry and then rinse it off with warm water.

Most of the time, you can treat ingrown hairs on your own at home. If you have severe symptoms such as persistent pain, swelling or signs of infection such as pus or drainage, talk to your health care provider or a dermatologist.

They might recommend:

  • Prescribed antibiotics such as clindamycin
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) 1% hydrocortisone cream
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Tretinoin
  • Alpha hydroxy acid

How to deal with razor bumps

Razor bumps aren’t the same as ingrown hairs, but you might notice them after shaving. With razor bumps, you usually have a cluster of small red or pink bumps that are uncomfortable or itchy. In severe cases, they could be filled with pus.

You can treat them with:

  • OTC creams or lotions that contain salicylic acid or glycolic acid to help exfoliate the skin and reduce inflammation 
  • Warm compresses
  • Moisturizer to prevent dryness and help the area heal

It’s a good idea to take a break from shaving the affected areas until the razor bumps heal. If they aren’t healing or they are uncomfortable, talk to your health care provider or a dermatologist.

The bottom line

Ingrown hairs occur when the cut edge of a hair that was shaved curls back into the skin. They’re more common with coarse, curly hair. You can prevent them by using good shaving techniques and taking care of your skin before and after shaving.

If you have an ingrown hair, you can typically treat it yourself at home. If it’s not getting better or you’re worried about it, reach out to your health care provider, a dermatologist or an expert at Banner Health.

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