Ingrown Hair Basics

close up of man shaving
Ingrown hairs are often called "razor bumps" because they frequently appear after shaving. See more pictures of skin problems.
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You shave, you moisturize and you use expensive skin care products, but after all these daily rituals, you still don't have the baby-smooth skin you desire. Despite all your time and trouble, you're left with tiny, red bumps on your skin: ingrown hairs.

Ingrown hairs are exactly what they sound like. They're hairs that grow out of the hair follicle and then curl around and grow back in. In many cases, the hairs don't even grow entirely out of the skin. They simply grow sideways and become trapped in the skin, causing irritation [source: Jay].


Most people experience ingrown hairs as small, red bumps, but if you look closely at the bumps, you may see tiny hairs trapped in the center. These bumps are sometimes called "razor bumps" because they often appear on recently shaven skin. Although they may be painful, most ingrown hairs usually go away on their own. However, sometimes the hair follicle can become infected and require treatment. Any part of the body you regularly shave can be susceptible to ingrown hairs [source: Mayo Clinic]. For men, this means the face and neck. For women, the most common areas for ingrown hairs are the legs, underarms and bikini line.

Read on to learn more about ingrown hairs and how you can prevent them.


Preventing Ingrown Hairs

Because ingrown hairs often result from shaving, one easy way to prevent them is to simply stop shaving. As your hair grows away from your skin, it's less likely it will curl back into the hair follicle. If putting the razor aside isn't an option, try using a depilatory cream instead of a razor. Depilatory creams contain sodium thioglycolate or calcium thioglycolate, chemicals that dissolve hair above and slightly below the skin's surface.

Shaving, especially frequent shaving, can be hard on the skin because it damages hair follicles and encourages ingrown hairs. Try gently exfoliating your skin before shaving, and remember to replace your razor blade frequently. You can also soften the hair before shaving by soaking it in warm water and applying a moisturizer. Shave in the same direction in which the hair is growing, and don't shave the same area more than once per session [source: Jay]. If you use wax to remove unwanted hair, carefully follow the wax's directions to ensure hair is lifted out by its roots.


Because ingrown hairs frequently occur in areas that experience constant friction, you should avoid wearing tight clothing in areas you often shave. Men with ingrown hairs on the neck should avoid tight collars, and women with ingrown hairs on their legs should avoid tight pants. [source: Mayo Clinic].

What happens if you try all these preventive measures and still end up with unsightly red bumps? Read on to learn about treatment options.


Treating Ingrown Hairs

Ingrown hairs usually go away on their own, and if you get them only once in a while, there's no need to worry [source: Mayo Clinic]. Individual ingrown hairs can be gently pulled out of the skin with a clean pair of tweezers, especially if part of the hair is above the skin's surface. You can also try exfoliating your skin to remove dead skin cells that trap hair. And there are several skin care products that help remove ingrown hairs. These products often contain glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid used to exfoliate the skin.

But if you frequently get painful ingrown hairs, talk to a dermatologist. A dermatologist may suggest using a topical antiseptic to prevent the ingrown hairs from becoming infected. Electrolysis and laser hair removal are other options. Electrolysis permanently removes hair, while laser hair removal provides long-lasting -- but not permanent -- hair removal [source: MedicineNet].


Sometimes ingrown hairs can become infected. Read on to learn more about infected ingrown hairs and how to treat them.

Infected Ingrown Hairs

Despite our best efforts, we're sometimes unable to prevent ingrown hairs, and sometimes those ingrown hairs can become infected, resulting in painful, pus-filled bumps. Maybe you picked at the tiny, red bump, introducing bacteria into the skin. Perhaps the hair tip took some microorganisms with it as it pierced the skin. Maybe the tweezers you used to try to remove the hair weren't sterile. In any case, an infected hair follicle is the result. [source: Jay].

If you have an infected ingrown hair, don't squeeze or scrub it. Use a gentle soap to clean the infected follicle, and don't shave the area or wear tight clothing. You should also apply an antibiotic ointment daily. If the infection doesn't clear up in a few days, call your doctor. Remember, even a small infection should be taken seriously, so don't let the problem go untreated.


Now that you know how to help prevent and treat ingrown hairs, you should be on your way to that silky, smooth skin you desire. For more information on ingrown hairs, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Gibson, Lawrence E., M.D. "Ingrown hairs: How do you prevent them?" MayoClinic. (Accessed 7/29/09)
  • Jay, Harvey H., M.D. "What Is an Ingrown hair?" MDLaserDerm. (Accessed 7/29/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Keratosis Pilaris." (Accessed 7/29/09)
  • Mayo Clinic "Laser Hair Removal." (Accessed 7/29/09)
  • "Electrolysis." (Accessed 7/29/09)
  • Shmerling, Robert H., M.D."The Hair-Raising Myth About Shaving." Aetna InteliHealth. (Accessed 7/29/09)
  • Weill Cornell Medical College. "Ingrown Hairs." (Accessed 7/29/09)