What are ingrown hairs, other than painful, unsightly nuisances? In essence, an ingrown hair is a hair that started growing outward (like hair normally would), but then curled under itself and began to grow inward, underneath the top layer of your skin. This inward growth creates a little bump that might look like a pimple in an area that usually doesn’t break out, like your bikini line or calf.
Individuals with curly hair are especially prone to ingrown hairs since the nature of curly hair lends itself to growing in directions that aren’t linear. But anyone can develop them, thanks to common practices like sweating, natural oil secretion, and hair removal. They can occur anywhere, but especially in hair-removal hot spots like around your eyebrows, underarms, or bikini line. Regardless of how and why you got them, here’s your guide to getting rid of ingrown hairs for good.
1. Make Sure It’s an Ingrown Hair
Check to make sure your skin bump is actually an ingrown hair. First, look at it. If you can see the hair under the skin, that’s an obvious sign, says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai hospital’s Department of Dermatology. Second, where is it? Dr. Geeta Yadav explains, “The location will help indicate what type of bump you’re dealing with. If it’s in an area that you frequently shave, wax, or otherwise depilate, it’s more likely to be an ingrown hair than a traditional pimple.” Also, does the bump feel tender or inflamed? Does it have a yellow pustule? If it feels painful and it doesn’t seem to go away after a month, it’s probably an ingrown hair, cautions Dr. Tracy Evans, medical director of Pacific Skin and Cosmetic Dermatology. “Those with darker skin tones should also keep a lookout for hyperpigmentation caused by that inflammation,” says Dr. Yadav. Our suggestion: Check with a doctor before proceeding.
2. Use Acid
If you know it is an ingrown hair, the cure is exfoliation. There are a few ways you can exfoliate, but exfoliation via acids (like glycolic, salicylic, and lactic) is the easiest and fastest route. Acids in topical products loosen the outermost layer of skin cells and work to both prevent and treat ingrown hairs at the same time. “I particularly recommend glycolic and lactic acids, which are effective but can be quite gentle (especially ideal around the pubic area), and, of course, salicylic acid,” says Dr. Yadav.
If you’re already an ardent skin-care user and use them for your face, you can use what you already have on your body, too. Avoid using a retinol, though. Although retinol helps with skin turnover, it is slow to work and irritating, says Dr. Zeichner. What formula to use depends on what body area you want to address: presoaked swipe pads with some physical exfoliation work great for the bikini area, a spreadable lotion formula is great for larger surface areas like legs and arms, and something with a thinner consistency may work better for the more sensitive skin on the face. No matter where you apply the acid, it’s important to follow up with sunscreen, as acids make your skin more vulnerable to sun damage.
3. Get Physical
Dry-brushing — where you vigorously brush your body with stiff bristles — does a lot more than make self-tanner last longer and stimulate the lymphatic systems of supermodels. This form of physical exfoliation prevents ingrown hairs from forming, since you’re constantly moving hair out of the way and releasing tucked-under ingrown hairs.
Because dry-brushing is a harsher way to exfoliate, limit yourself to weekly body treatments. If you want a toned-down experience, a dampened exfoliating mitt can give your body a thorough, albeit less-intense sweeping. If your skin is very sensitive or prone to redness, however, you might want to skip all of this entirely.
4. Add a Smoothing Scrub
Scrubs are less intense than dry-brushing, and a good alternative to help alleviate ingrowns around your bikini line and body (they are still too harsh for your face). Use a sugar or salt scrub that’s not too oily — too much oil runs the risk of clogging pores, encouraging more ingrown hairs to develop. If you want to cover more bases, look for a finer textured scrub that has those aforementioned exfoliating acids in its formula. Scrub one to two times a week if you want to get rid of ingrown hairs for good.
5. Stop Shaving
Shaving isn’t bad per se — after all, it is another form of physical exfoliation — but the way hair grows back after a shave can lead to problems. A razor cuts hair at a sharp angle, and as the shaved hair regrows, it’s more likely to grow as an ingrown hair because of its sharp, precise tip. If you like to shave, do it in the direction of the hair. It might reduce the risk of developing ingrown hairs down the road, advises Dr. Yadav.
Waxing is one way to weaken new hair growth and thus prevent ingrowns. If waxing sounds too painful, try depilatory creams, or an electric device for hair removal without the scent, waiting time, deep-breathing, and cleanup.
6. Lighten Up Your Lotion
All of this exfoliation means nothing if you plan to top your skin with thick, heavy moisturizers. Heavy creams can sabotage all your exfoliation efforts, and thick oils can also clog pores and exacerbate any ingrown hair problem. Stick to lightweight, breathable formulas that keep your skin moisturized, but not suffocated.
7. See a Professional
There are a lot of DIY tips on how to pluck an ingrown hair, and as harmless as this advice may seem, it’s much better to visit your dermatologist instead. Ingrown hair plucking is not normal plucking — you will have to create a small incision on your skin to grab the trapped hair. “Just like you might with a deep or painful pimple, use a warm compress to help soften the skin and bring the infection closer to the surface,” says Dr. Yadav. “Then cleanse the area and use a sterile pointed tweezer to carefully expose the hair and remove it. Afterward, cleanse again, apply an antibacterial ointment, and leave the bump alone as it heals. One thing to be mindful of is that traumatic treatments, particularly on brown or Black skin, can leave behind post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and scarring.”
Will you get an infection? Well, that depends on a lot of factors, including the cleanliness of your tweezer and whether you disinfect and closely monitor the area you plucked. Overall, it’s not worth it. Go to the doctor and save yourself the headache.
This article was originally published June 18, 2018, and has been updated throughout. If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.