Knowing what to do with ingrown hair is vital to ensure they 1) don't worsen and 2) clear up quickly. Ingrown hairs are super irritating and often flare up at the least opportune moments, but picking and poking at the site to get rid of the hair is a quick way to cause an infection.
Generally, ingrown hairs are more common with temporary hair removal methods like shaving, waxing, and tweezing, than with semi-permanent procedures like at-home laser hair removal. Anytime you pluck pesky chin hairs before a day of photos, or shave your legs and bikini line in a rush ahead of a vacation, you risk irritated skin and ingrown hairs.
So, to avoid any issues and keep your skin and body hair healthy, we've detailed the causes and how to treat them to help you avoid them in the future. If you’re dealing with ingrown hair right now, read on for treatment tips from the experts, including when you should seek the help of a specialist.
Meet the experts on ingrown hairs
- Danielle Lawrence is a licesned esthetician at Show A Little Skincare who has explained the importance of treating ingrown hairs and how to deal with them at home.
- Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson is chief medical officer at Ideal Image, and has explained the causes of ingrown hairs, as well as how they can be managed and treated.
Why do ingrown hairs happen?
After hair removal, regrowth sometimes gets stuck under the skin. “Rather than the new hair growing straight out, it curls around and grows back into the skin,” explains Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson, chief medical officer at Ideal Image.
“This happens because the pathway through the hair follicle is blocked by debris like dead skin cells and sebum," she continues. "When the hair grows back into the skin, the body responds to it as if it’s a foreign object and that’s why you’ll usually see inflammation, hyperpigmentation, and itchiness.”
This happens more frequently to some people than others, and in certain places of the body. “Ingrown hairs are most commonly found in areas where you shave, and are more commonly found in curly, coarse hair than fine, straight hair," Dr. Mraz Robinson adds.
Whether angry red bumps and trapped hairs are an occasional annoyance or a constant problem for you, it’s important to know what to do with ingrown hair—and what not to do.
How to treat ingrown hairs at home
Most ingrown hairs on your legs, body, and face will sort themselves out in time. “Minor ingrowns will typically resolve on their own with time as long as you stop shaving the area,” Dr. Mraz Robinson confirms. As such, leaving your ingrown hairs alone can often be the best course of action.
But what happens if you don’t treat more serious ingrown hairs? According to Danielle Lawrence, licensed esthetician at Show a Little Skincare, you can develop an infection. “[This] can turn into cyst that will require excision and possibly antibiotics,” she explains, adding that long-term consequences can include scarring and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (known as PIH).
Luckily, you have a lot of options for treating ingrown hair before getting close to that point. Our experts have shared their recommendations in more detail below.
1. Apply a warm compress
Start by treating the area with a warm compress. Massaging the area with a washcloth soaked in very warm (not burning hot) water can do the trick to help clear and open up the clogged follicle. This will also ensure that the area is clean and help you to avoid infection.
2. Follow up with a spot treatment
Dr. Mraz Robinson recommends “keeping the area clean with benzoyl peroxide or tea tree oil, which has natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.” Tea tree can be a wonderful essential oil for ingrown hair irritation, but other ingredients can provide protection and relief as well.
Then, applying a spot treatment can work wonders, according to our experts. “If you find yourself needing to cure an ingrown, I recommend a spot treatment cream with active ingredients like green coffee, salicylic acid, lactic acid, and aloe vera” Lawrence says.
3. Remove the hair with tweezers, if you can
By this point, you might see the trapped hair has been released. But is it safe to remove ingrown hairs?
“When the hair is visible at the surface, you can use clean tweezers to pull it out,” Dr. Mraz Robinson says. But you should only do this if the warm compress and spot treatment have actually freed the hair. “Never, ever dig it out or try to pierce the skin to access it; this can lead to infection and long-term scarring," she stresses.
4. See a professional if at-home treatments don’t work
After this three-step process, some serious ingrown hairs may still be stuck and inflamed. If that happens, and the spot is getting noticeably worse, you should seek professional advice.
“If your ingrown hair has a large, painful cyst or pustule, then incision and drainage may be required,” says Dr. Mraz Robinson—but this is not something you should try at home.
“DIY removal most often ends with the hair still ingrown and most likely creates a larger infection, causing damage that will lead to scarring and PIH," Lawrence warns. "Your best bet is to resist the urge to pick and leave this to a professional. A licensed esthetician or dermatologist can remove an ingrown hair safely in an antiseptic environment.”
How to prevent ingrown hairs
Even if you have a bad experience with an angry ingrown hair, there are still plenty of things you can do to stop it from happening again. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; this is equally true for ingrown hairs,” says Lawrence. "Keeping your skin properly exfoliated, hydrated, and moisturized is the best way to prevent the issue."
If you’re prone to ingrown hairs, your follicles are probably constantly clogged, which either means you're not exfoliating your skin on a regular basis or that your current body scrub just isn't cutting it.
Instead, Dr. Mraz Robinson recommends "integrating chemical exfoliation into your skincare routine, especially before shaving." Chemical exfoliants include AHAs, like glycolic acid, and BHAs, and will help you to get rid of dead skin cells, found in many bodycare products.
"For those who have recurrent issues, laser hair removal might also be your best bet," Dr. Mraz Robinson said. If shaving, waxing, and tweezing cause too many problems, it’s worth looking at alternative options. It's also worth considering how long hair removal methods last, as laser removal will last you much longer than shaving or waxing, for example. If you're looking to remove facial hair permanently, or hair from your legs, arms, or underarms, laser removal or electrolysis are longer-lasting options.
Aleesha was Deputy Editor and Beauty & Fashion Editor for My Imperfect Life, where she headed up the beauty, fashion and eCommerce pages. Previously she was Shopping Writer at woman&home and gained an AOP awards nomination after working on their news team. She earned an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London in 2017 and has since worked with a number of brands including, Women's Health, Stylist and Goodto. When she’s not testing all the new beauty & lifestyle products on the market, Aleesha spends her time soaking up the newest bestsellers and Netflix releases, watching everything Marvel, learning about different wines, attempting new languages and traveling as much as she can.