This is what to do if you have an ingrown hair—and when to contact a professional

Skincare pros explain what to do with ingrown hair issues and how to treat them safely at home to avoid an infection

woman with underarm hair in a pink bra with her arms up—to illustrate what to do with ingrown hair
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s important to know what to do with ingrown hair issues, as they can be irritating, and can often flare up at the least opportune moments. Picking and poking at the site to get rid of the hair is a quick way to cause an infection—so if you want to avoid this and keep your skin healthy, we've detail how to treat them, and the causes, to help you avoid them in the future.

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 hurry so that they’re perfectly smooth in time for a beach vacation, you risk causing skin irritation and ingrown hairs. And if you forget to exfoliate, you’re once again increasing the chances of it happening.

If you’re dealing with ingrown hair, read on for the safest treatment tips—including how to use essential oil for irritation, and when it’s time to see a skincare specialist.

Why ingrown hairs happen

After hair removal, new growth sometimes gets stuck. “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 (opens in new tab)

“This happens because the pathway through the hair follicle is blocked by debris like dead skin cells and sebum. 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. As Dr. Mraz Robinson explains, “Ingrown hairs are most commonly found in areas where you shave, and are more commonly found in curly, coarse hair than fine, straight hair.” 

Whether angry red bumps and trapped hairs are an occasional annoyance or a constant problem, it’s important to know what to do with ingrown hair—and what not to do.

What to do with 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,” notes Dr. Mraz Robinson. 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 (opens in new tab), you can develop an infection, “which can turn into cyst that will require excision and possibly antibiotics.” She adds that long-term consequences can include scarring and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). And that’s not to mention feeling anxiety about ever shaving again!

Luckily, you have a lot of options for treating an ingrown hair before getting close to that point. 

Here’s what the experts recommend, if you're wondering what to do with ingrown hair that won’t clear up on its own:

1. Apply a warm compress

Start by treating the area with a warm compress. Massaging the area with a washcloth soaked in hot water can do the trick to help clear and open up the clogged follicle.

This will also ensure the area is clean, to help you avoid the occurrence of an infection.

2. Follow up with a spot treatment

Next, 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 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 said.

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 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," he explained.

4. See a professional if at-home treatments don’t work

After that three-step process, some serious ingrown hairs will still be stuck and inflamed. If that happens, and the spot is getting noticeably worse, you’ll need to call in backup.

“If your ingrown hair has a large, painful cyst or pustule, then incision and drainage may be required,” explains Dr. Mraz Robinson—but this is not something you should try at home.

As Lawrence explains, “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. 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 run-in with an angry ingrown hair, there’s still plenty you can do to stop it from happening again.

As the old adage goes, “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 loofah and body scrub just aren’t cutting it. 

Instead, Dr. Mraz Robinson recommends "integrating chemical exfoliation into your skincare routine, especially before shaving." Chemical exfoliants are acids—including AHAs, like glycolic acid, or BHAs—that will help you to get rid of dead skin cells, and you can buy them from many of your favorite skincare brands, such as The Ordinary and Paula's Choice.

"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 not a bad idea to shop around for another hair removal method that may work better with your skin and lifestyle. 

It's also worth thinking about how long hair removal methods last—often, laser hair 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 is certainly the superior option.

My Imperfect Life thanks Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson of Ideal Image (opens in new tab) and Danielle Lawrence of Show a Little Skincare (opens in new tab) for their time and expertise.

Aleesha Badkar
Deputy Editor at My Imperfect Life

Aleesha is deputy editor and beauty & fashion lead for My Imperfect Life, where she heads up the beauty, fashion and eCommerce pages. Previously she was shopping writer for 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 new products, Aleesha spends her time soaking up the newest bestsellers and Netflix releases, learning about different wines, attempting new languages and travelling as much as she can.