What are ingrown hairs?
An ingrown hair, which is sometimes called pseudofolliculitis barbae, is usually when hair that’s been removed – through shaving, waxing, threading or plucking – curls back into the skin and gets trapped as it grows back, instead of growing out of the skin’s surface like normal.
This sometimes leads to redness, swelling, itchiness and, in some cases, pus-filled spots or an infection.
What are the symptoms of ingrown hairs?
- itchy skin around the hair
- darker skin around the area
- a raised red bump that looks like a pimple
- a pimple that may be filled with yellow pus
- a rash or razor burn, which leads to red areas on the skin caused by shaving
What causes ingrown hairs?
You’re more likely to get ingrown hairs if you have thick, curly or coarse hair, and if you shave, wax or pluck your hairs often.
Because of this, most ingrown hairs are found where you remove unwanted hair, such as under the armpits, around the beard area or on the neck, in pubic areas, including the bikini line, and on the legs, but ingrown hairs can appear anywhere on your body.
Shaving, waxing and threading your hair cuts it very close to the skin, which makes the tip of your hairs sharper and more likely to grow backwards. This clogs your hair follicles and causes inflammation.
But hair removal isn’t the only culprit. Other causes of ingrown hairs include:
- dead skin or dirt around your hairs (sometimes caused by sweating), which can clog your hair follicles
- wearing tight clothing, which may brush up against your hairs and force them to curl and grow backwards into the skin
How to treat ingrown hairs
In most cases, ingrown hairs are nothing serious and should get better on their own, if you allow them to grow out – this often happens once hairs get to 10 millimeters in length.
Other treatments you can try include:
- using a warm cloth a few times a day to open the pores, uncurl the hair and bring it to the surface by rubbing the area gently
- using mild soaps to clean the area, which can remove dead skin cells and help you avoid infection
- pulling the hair straight again with a clean pair of tweezers, but only once the hair has come above the skin. You should also avoid plucking the hair out completely, which may cause another ingrown hair to form or cause an infection
How to prevent ingrown hairs
Hair removal, including shaving and waxing, is the biggest cause of ingrown hairs. If you avoid these methods altogether, you may be able to prevent ingrown hairs from forming.
But if that isn’t an option for you, removing your pubic hair carefully may help lessen the chance of ingrown hairs, too. These measures include:
- exfoliating your hairs gently before removing them to release any trapped hairs
- shaving in the same direction that your hairs grow
- allowing your ingrown hairs to grow out themselves – don’t scratch or squeeze them because it may lead to infection
- leaving some stubble instead of shaving closely, which might stop bacteria getting into hair follicles
- trying laser hair removal instead of shaving and waxing
- patting the area with warm water before shaving, and using shaving gel
- rinsing your razor with water after each stroke and using as few strokes as possible
- using a sharp, single-blade razor
- reducing redness after shaving by holding a cool, wet cloth over your skin
What is an ingrown hair cyst?
Sometimes with ingrown hairs, you can develop an ingrown hair cyst. This is usually a pimple that’s turned into a pus-filled lump and becomes inflamed. If the cyst is infected, the area around the ingrown hair will often be itchy, red and sore.
Most ingrown hair cysts are nothing to worry about and they often get better on their own.
When to see a doctor
But you might need to see a doctor about an ingrown hair or an ingrown hair cyst if:
- the cyst is big and often gets stuck on your clothing
- the cyst or ingrown hair isn’t going away
- the ingrown hair becomes infected – it may be painful, red, swollen and spread to the skin around it
- you have a condition that weakens your immune system, such as HIV or uncontrolled diabetes, or you’re taking medicine that weakens your immune system
- your temperature is high, you feel hot, shivery or have symptoms of a fever at the same time as the cyst develops
- you notice lots of ingrown hairs over a large area and they’re painful – this could be folliculitis, a bacterial or fungal infection
- the cyst is leaking fluid or pus, or it’s becoming very painful
A doctor may give you antibiotics, a cream or ointments to help get rid of any infection. In some cases, the cyst may need to be surgically removed.
Your health questions answered
Is it a spot or an ingrown hair?
Ingrown hairs can look very similar to spots – red, swollen, itchy and sometimes filled with pus. But if these pimple-like spots are only on your body where you shave or wax, they’re more likely to be an ingrown hair, rather than acne.
Can you pop an ingrown hair?
Ingrown hairs can be frustrating, but try to avoid scratching, picking or squeezing them. This could make the ingrown hair (and the area around it) worse by damaging the skin and increasing your chances of infection.
- ingrown hairs are common and usually clear up on their own after a little while
- shaving, waxing and threading can make ingrown hairs more likely, as well as wearing tight clothing that causes friction
- ingrown hairs usually cause red and swollen areas of skin, with a pimple-like spot that’s sometimes filled with pus
- you can reduce the likelihood of getting ingrown hairs if you stop shaving and waxing. Getting laser hair removal instead should get rid of unwanted hair, without the risk of ingrown hairs
- see a doctor if your ingrown hair becomes painful, swollen, red and hot, or doesn’t go away on its own after a few weeks