If you’ve noticed red bumps on your body after your hair removal routine, you could be dealing with ingrown hairs, a common—and irritating—issue. But fear not, these pesky bumps are easily treatable.
We tapped two dermatologists for the low-down on how to treat and prevent ingrown hairs at home—and when it’s time to consult a doctor.
What are ingrown hairs?
Ingrown hairs are an unfortunate by-product of most types of hair removal, such as shaving, waving and tweezing, and happen when a growing hair follicle meets a blocked pore and curls in on itself or grows sideways. They leave behind uncomfortable, itchy red bumps that can sometimes become infected or scarred.
What causes ingrown hairs?
This issue most often develops on commonly waxed and shaved areas of the body, such as the faces, necks, legs, armpits and bikini line of those who shave.
Hair texture can also be a factor. Those with curly or coarse hair tend to experience ingrown hairs more often, as curved hair naturally grows toward the skin rather than away, according to the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA).
How do you treat ingrown hairs at home?
“The first thing is to avoid irritation,” says Dr. Marlene Dytoc, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Alberta Division of Dermatology. “Wash the skin with a mild, gentle cleanser.” After cleansing, it’s recommended to use a shaving cream or gel before using your razor, which “gives some lubrication so that you can soften the hair when you’re shaving,” she says.
How can you prevent ingrown hairs?
A little prevention goes a long way when it comes to ingrown hairs. Dytoc recommends using new, clean tools and shaving in the direction that the hair grows in rather than against the grain, avoiding pressing hard into the skin, as well as rinsing the blade after each stroke.
However, those experiencing persistent ingrown hair issues may want to partake in a thorough weekly care routine.
“To start, we always recommend exfoliating two to three times a week,” says Rachel Kerr, the director of brand and marketing for Bushbalm, an Ottawa-based company and product line focused on solving “common skin challenges that aren’t often talked about.” She says that doing so will help soften body hair and smooth skin before hair removal.
Dr. Susan Poelman, a certified dermatologist, co-director of Beacon Dermatology in Calgary and board member of the CDA, encourages exfoliation using gentle acid exfoliating products such as the Skinfix Renewing Body Cream or the CeraVe Renewing SA Lotion, which contains salicylic acid.
“Those types of exfoliating acids can prevent the buildup of dead skin cells that can perpetuate ingrown hairs,” says Poelman.
When should you consult your doctor?
While ingrown hairs only rarely require a visit to the doctor or prescribed antibiotic creams, it’s important to consult a medical professional if you notice signs of infection, including pus build-up, red bumps increasing in size or pain that lasts for more than a few days.
It’s possible for an untreated ingrown hair to develop into a cyst known as a pilar if the first layer of skin breaks. When this happens, it can fill with keratin (a protein found in nails, hair and skin) and create an inflamed bag around the affected area. Cysts need to be extracted by a dermatologist; don’t attempt to squeeze it yourself, as it will simply refill and can also complicate the extraction process.
“If you squeeze the cyst, it becomes partially absorbed, so it’s harder to remove it,” says Dytoc. “There will be some foreign body inflammation and scarring. So, when a cyst has been squeezed or manipulated, then even with excision … it tends to recur.”
Poelman also warns about a condition known as hidradenitis suppurativa (HS), in which a patient can experience painful boils under the arms and breasts and in the buttocks and groin area. It is often misdiagnosed as ingrown hairs, as they initially can appear as red bumps or cysts in common areas in which ingrown hairs occur, but is actually a condition that causes significant pain, frequent flare-ups and scarring.
“[Hidradenitis suppurativa] is a condition that people often struggle with in silence. They’re isolated and even a lot of doctors are not aware of this condition or don’t know that treatment options exist for it,” says Poelman.
Is there a cosmetic treatment for ingrown hairs?
For some, turning to laser hair removal is a cosmetic treatment that can help prevent ingrown hairs and related complications in the long run.
“The advantage of laser hair removal is that over time, you need to do it less and less, so there’s less reason to shave in between,” says Dytoc, who also recommends a hair growth inhibitor cream known as Eflornithine, a prescription treatment that can be applied after any hair removal process, including laser hair removal, to decrease the enzyme in the human body needed for hair growth.
Are ingrown hairs discussed enough? What’s the hesitancy?
In the age of body positivity and normalization of topics around skin health including acne, psoriasis and more, ingrown hairs and hair growth on commonly shaved parts of the body are becoming part of a more public conversation. Due to the clean-shaven beauty standard that has persisted for years, it is not surprising that an individual may be hesitant to speak about ingrown hairs, or feel the need to cover them up.
“[Ingrown hairs] is something that happens all the time. If you’re removing hair, there’s really no way around it, you’re likely going to get some redness, irritation,” says Kerr. “And obviously, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But we think it’s also really normal to want to treat something like this.”
Public figures have also echoed this idea, including Nadya Okamoto, founder of the global non-profit Period Movement, which aims to eradicate the stigma behind periods.
“Normalize pubic hair (stubble) and ingrown hairs,” writes Okamoto in an Instagram post from November 2020. “Part of me wanted to airbrush the stubble I have in my armpits, too, but then I caught myself and thought how tf have we started to hold ourselves to a hairless standard?”
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