Medically Approved

Everything you need to know about ingrown hairs

Man shaving

When your hairs fail to sprout properly, they can lead to skin discoloration, pain and even infection. Here’s how to soothe and smooth your skin.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

If you’re shaving, waxing or tweezing, odds are you’re hoping to make skin smooth and bump-free. But it doesn’t always end up that way.

Sometimes hair removal creates chaos just below your skin as the hairs try to regrow. Rather than sprouting outward, they get stuck, pushing up into your skin. This can create redness and bumps. In some cases, they can be incredibly painful.

“That hair growing into the skin is often perceived by the body as a foreign object,” says Rajani Katta, MD. “The body reacts with inflammation in the form of red bumps called papules, or even pus-filled bumps called pustules.”

Dr. Katta is a board-certified dermatologist at Baylor College of Medicine and McGovern Medical School at UT Health in Houston. She’s also the author of Glow: The Dermatologist’s Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet.

She notes that ingrown hairs are most common in areas of the body with coarse or curly hair, such as the beard, neck, scalp, armpits or bikini line. And the closer you shave, the more likely you are to have ingrown hairs. “That causes the hair shaft to be below the surface of the skin, so when the hair grows back, it’s then more likely to curl back into the skin,” says Dr. Katta.

If you end up using prescription medication to treat an ingrown hair, the coupon search tool through Optum Perks may be able to help you save money.

For a better understanding of how to treat ingrown hairs — and, just as important, how to prevent them in the future — keep reading.

Who’s at risk for ingrown hairs?

Ingrown hairs are clinically referred to as pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB). Anyone who shaves can get them, but they’re most common among Black people, according to the Mayo Clinic. They’re also more likely to occur in the beard area, especially the neck.

This makes the military a unique target for ingrown hair research. Men in the military are required to shave their faces, and indeed, research shows that Black service members suffer the most as a result of this policy.

According to a recent review published in the journal Military Medicine, ingrown hairs affect 45% of Black service members. This is compared to 3% of non-Hispanic whites. The explanation, note the researchers, has to do with hair structure.

Black people are more likely to have curled hairs that grow into the skin. They’re also more likely to have a variant on a gene called KRT75, which codes for hair follicles that are 6 times as likely to create ingrown hairs.

How to prevent ingrown hairs

The most effective solution is to stop shaving, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Instead, just let the hair grow.

But that’s not always possible. So if you want to stop ingrown hairs from forming while still shaving, here’s how.

Exfoliate regularly

Exfoliating removes dead cells from the outer layer of your skin. This reduces the amount of tissue that a hair can grow into, says Hadley King, MD. She’s a board-certified dermatologist practicing in New York City.

“If you have an ingrown hair that is not painful and does not have pus, you can continue to gently exfoliate the area,” she says. “As the skin cells turn over, the hair will eventually be released.”

If you’re not used to exfoliating, begin slowly, says Dr. King. “I generally recommend starting once or twice per week,” she says. If your skin isn’t too dry or irritated from that, you can increase the frequency. You might even exfoliate daily if your skin tolerates it.

There are 2 kinds of exfoliants:

  • Physical exfoliants. These remove dead cells with rough compounds that help scrub off the outer layer of the skin. Dr. King recommends Dove® Gentle Exfoliating Body Wash with Sea Minerals or St. Ives® Exfoliating Body Wash with Pink Lemon and Mandarin Orange.
  • Chemical exfoliation: These use glycolic acid or another alpha hydroxy acid to chemically break down dead cells. Dr. King recommends Eucerin® Roughness Relief Body Lotion.

Use proper shaving technique

If you’re going to shave with a blade, there are a few things to keep in mind to decrease your chances of ingrown hairs.

  • Wait until after a warm bath or shower to shave. “The warm water preps the skin and hair for an easier shave,” says Dr. King.
  • To reduce friction on the skin, always use shaving cream and a sharp blade.  
  • Use short, light strokes in the direction of your hair growth. Going against the grain can cut hair below the skin.
  • After shaving, rinse your skin with cool water and pat dry.

Using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can help soothe shaving irritation. Dr. King likes Aquaphor® Itch Relief Ointment.

Avoid picking

While it may be tempting to pick or pop the bumps formed by your ingrown hairs, doing so can make them worse, says Dr. King.

“Picking traumatizes the skin and increases the risk for infection,” she says. “The worst marks I see from ingrown hairs are from the picking, not from the hairs themselves.”

Picking can lead to scarring and discoloration. So if the ingrown hair is severe, she recommends seeing your dermatologist for extraction.

How to treat ingrown hairs

Most of the time, ingrown hairs will resolve on their own. But for bad cases, medication or even laser surgery can help speed healing and relieve symptoms. Here's what is commonly used.

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Topical steroids

Hydrocortisone, a topical steroid, may be used for quick relief. It can “help reduce the redness and itching that can result from skin inflammation,” says Dr. Katta.

(Optum Perks can help you find discounts on prescription hydrocortisone.)

Retinoids

Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives. Like exfoliants, they can help prevent ingrown hairs by removing dead cells, according to the Mayo Clinic. Tretinoin (Retin-A®) is a commonly used retinoid cream.

Antibiotic creams

“If the ingrown hairs are painful or have pus bumps, then you may have a bacterial folliculitis,” a skin infection, says Dr. King. “You should see your dermatologist for treatment.”

In that case, you may need an antibiotic cream or lotion. “Rarely, antibiotics by mouth may be prescribed for more severe skin infections,” she says.

Permanent hair removal

If you want a surefire way to avoid ingrown hairs, consider permanent removal. “The most definitive solution is to get rid of the hair, either by laser hair removal or electrolysis,” says Dr. King.

Laser hair removal works by slowing growth and thinning out your hair. Electrolysis, on the other hand, stops growth permanently by destroying the follicle. Talk to your dermatologist about which option may be best for your skin and hair type.

We can’t save you money on laser hair removal. But we can help reduce your out-of-pocket costs during treatment. Download the Optum Perks discount card and show it to your pharmacist at checkout. You may be able to save money on your prescription medications.

 

Additional sources
Ingrown hair overview:
The Mayo Clinic
Ingrown hairs in the military: Military Medicine (2021). “Pseudofolliculitis Barbae in the U.S. military, a review
Shaving waivers affect promotion ability: Military Medicine (2021). “Shaving waivers in the United States Air Force and their impact on promotions of Black/African-American members
Ingrown hair overview: American Osteopathic College of Dermatology