Red, pus-filled, and all-around uncomfy, I think we can all agree that finding an ingrown hair anywhere on our body—be it the leg, armpit, or pubic area—is no fun. They’re itchy, painful and sometimes downright unsightly, not to mention tough to treat. Like a pimple you can’t pop, these little hairs are stubborn. But they’re one of the byproducts of having body hair, and if you’re reading this, you’ve probably had to deal with one (or some) in your lifetime.
What we choose to do—or not do—with our body hair is a totally personal decision. However, those who choose to remove their hair should be aware that sometimes, it’s the method of hair removal method that contributes to pesky ingrown hairs (yes, there is a correct way to shave). But before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to treat and prevent ingrown hairs, we asked two dermatologists to explain what they are and how they form.
What are ingrown hairs?
“Ingrown hairs are bumps that occur on any hair-bearing area and are caused by hairs that grow back into the skin rather than straight up,” explains Yunyoung Claire Chang, M.D., a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York.
The development of any hair begins at the root, called the hair follicle, and as the hair grows it shoots up through the skin and onto the surface. Ingrown hairs happen when instead of shooting straight through the skin, they curl back on themselves and grow back into—and under—the skin, creating raised, red, itchy spots that come from the inflammation around the irritated hair follicle.
Dr. Chang explains that areas with curly or coarse hair (like the pubic area) are more prone to ingrown hairs, and shaving or plucking can exacerbate them. Laser hair removal can be a great solution for those with chronic ingrown hairs, but if you do choose to shave, here’s the best way to do so that will prevent them from forming.
How to prevent ingrown hairs:
1Cleanse the area first.
Dr. Chang advises you always start shaving by cleansing the hair-bearing area with warm water and a gentle cleanser. This will wash away dirt, oil, and debris that could potentially clog the follicle and make removal more difficult. Plus, by cleaning off all the gunk and dead skin cells, you can get a smoother, closer shave.
2Apply shaving cream or gel.
This should go without saying, but you should always use a shaving cream or gel before taking a razor to any part of your body. It’s designed to lubricate and moisturize the skin before a sharp blade comes in contact with it and cuts down the likelihood of you nicking yourself of ending up with an annoyingly irritated ingrown hair.
3Grab a fresh razor.
If you’ve been noticing more tugging, nicking, or ingrown hairs, it may be time to change your razor. Dull, rusty razors carry bacteria and old skin cells, and weak or overused blades aren’t able to deliver a decent shave. Not to mention, you’re much more likely to develop an ingrown hair.
How often you should change your blade depends on how often you shave, but a good rule of thumb is to switch out your razor every four to six uses. When in doubt, Dr. Sperling suggests to just grab a fresh one.
4Shave in the direction of hair growth.
Again, you can really minimize the amount of tugging and irritation if you shave in the same direction your hair grows. Going “against the grain” increases your chances of getting razor burn and ingrown hairs, but “gliding your razor in the same direction as your hair grows is a safer way to remove just the external part of the hair follicle, without irritating it,” explains Dr. Chang.
After every one or two strokes, rinse the blade to avoid it from becoming clogged with hair and/or shaving gel—another surefire way to end up with bumps or ingrown hairs.
How to treat ingrown hairs:
If you do get an ingrown hair here or there, not to worry. Though they are annoying, they can be treated and sometimes, they’ll just go away on their own. But ones that seem extra irritated and inflamed may be infected, and these can leave behind scarring or hyperpigmentation if not taken care of properly, explained Dr. Chang.
“For inflamed ingrown hairs, I recommend using a medical treatment, including topical steroids, topical antibiotics, exfoliating cleansers like salicylic acid, and retinoid creams,” she says. “Topical steroids can calm down inflammation, while salicylic acid and retinoid creams can exfoliate the skin and bring ingrown hairs to the surface.”
So, if you’ve got an ingrown hair that just won’t quit, it might be worth taking a visit to your derm.