Hair removal is a very old practice, performed by humans for thousands of years, and there are various different reasons why people choose to remove some or most of their body hair.
Removing hairs from the skin can cause ingrown hairs to form, and while this isn’t a huge threat to health, they can become infected, and need to be managed.
There are steps that can be taken to avoid ingrown hairs, and information on what to do to deal with an ingrown hair if they occur.
Hair Removal History
Reading up on hair removal is actually quite interesting stuff. Firstly, there’s all the history. The ancient Egyptians used to invest a huge amount of time in cleansing their bodies from hair and there’s even some evidence to suggest cavemen used tools for reducing the hair on their bodies to avoid lice.
While removal of hair from some areas of the body dates back thousands of years, hair removal in other areas has been more recently influenced by popular culture. For example, it wasn’t until 1915 and the appearance of a model in a sleeveless dress on the front cover of Harper’s Bazaar that underarm hair removal became popular.
Fast forward to modern day, and according to recent research, almost 88 percent of women choose to remove some or all of their pubic hair.
People choose to remove their body hair for many different reasons. It might well be due to personal preference or a partner’s preference. Some people just feel more hygienic having whipped off their furry frock, others want to avoid sporting the teddy bear look when they go to the beach or for a night out.
Ingrown hairs can be a significant problem for some people, and is often associated with hair removal. We look into the issue of ingrown hairs to find out exactly what they are, how they happen, how our choice of hair removal methods might be affecting the risk of ingrown hairs, and how to manage them.
How Do Hairs Grow?
To get a good understanding of ingrown hairs, we first need to understand how hairs grow. Each hair originates from a single follicle—like a tiny pocket—in the skin.
The root of each hair strand is formed by protein cells which are nourished from the nutrients in the local blood supply. This creates more cells, which add to the length of the hair.
Over time, the hair grows and pushes its way out of the follicle, passing through an oil gland on the way, which coats the hair in oil to keep it lubricated as it pushes through to the surface of the skin.
The end of the hairs we can see above the surface are dead; it’s the root, inside the follicle that’s sustained by nutrients to keep growing and adding length to the hair.
This is the process which all our body hair goes through. The only difference is that the hair on our head continues to grow for many months, while the hair on our body tends to complete its growth cycle within around a month, which is why our body hair is generally shorter than our head hair.
What Is an Ingrown Hair?
This system works very well for most people, most of the time. However, sometimes as the hair is growing it doesn’t make it through to the surface of the skin. This can happen for a number of different reasons.
Hairs that grow back into the skin don’t stop growing; they just keep going, and can reach incredibly long lengths. To illustrate ingrown hairs, have a look at this video which demonstrates professional ingrown hair removal.
You may be able to see the hair lying under the skin, depending on the affected area and how deep the hair is. It’s also possible to have dark patches of skin associated with ingrown hairs; this is due to the melanin, or skin pigment present.
As it progresses, an ingrown hair can look similar to a blackhead, with a small lump underneath a dark colored cap due to the melanin and debris naturally present on our skin.
What Are Embedded Hairs?
Sometimes, hairs can grow in completely the wrong directions, and end up breaking through the wall of the hair follicle. As it grows, the hair can cause inflammation, discomfort and pain.
This is called an embedded hair, and is similar to an ingrown hair. Treatment consists of using anti-inflammatory medication to control the inflammation while waiting for the hair to emerge.
What Affects Ingrown Hairs?
According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, there are several factors that make ingrown hairs more likely to occur. If your hair is more coarse than fine, and curly rather than straight, then you’re more prone to ingrown hairs. If the hair follicle itself is curved or off center, this also makes ingrown hairs more likely to occur.
Experts report that if you shave, wax or pluck the hairs, they’re also more likely to become ingrown. The most commonly affected area for ingrown hairs is the beard area in men, which makes sense, since this is probably the most frequently shaved part of anyone’s body.
Pulling the skin taut while you shave can increase the likelihood of ingrown hairs, since this allows the hair to be cut at the lowest possible level and then be drawn back into the skin slightly.
Can Ingrown Hairs Be Prevented?
Technically speaking, yes, you can prevent ingrown hairs from occurring. However, the best way to prevent them isn’t going to appeal to everyone:
Stop Hair Removal In The Affected Areas
Basically, an ingrown hair is caused by a newly formed hair unable to find its way through to the surface of the skin. The best way of preventing ingrown hairs is not to artificially remove the hairs that are there.
In this way, each hair that makes it through to the surface of the skin is by definition not ingrown. It’ll complete its full life cycle and fall out naturally when it dies. Following this, it’ll be replaced by another hair which follows the same natural growth cycle.
If You Don’t Want To Stop Hair Removal…
If, like me, removing the hair on certain parts of your anatomy is non-negotiable, there are some steps you can follow to reduce the likelihood of hairs becoming ingrown.
Get Ready for Hair Removal
Before performing your chosen method of hair removal, prime the area beforehand. Firstly, wash the skin gently with a very mild, warm soap solution. This’ll help to clean the area, remove any bacteria and dead skin cells present.
If You Intend to Shave
Apply a warm washcloth to the area to be shaved. This helps to open the pores and follicles. Apply a shaving cream or gel—look for one that’s designed to be used on the specific area you want to shave. Creams and gels for sensitive skin are generally best for the pubic area and underarms.
This helps lubricate the razor, allowing it to glide smoothly across the skin without sloughing up skin cells and causing any abrasions.
Use a single blade razor, or one specifically designed for your purpose. Always make sure your razor has fresh, sharp blades. If not, it’s time to replace the blade, or buy a new razor. Dull blades can be a major cause of ingrown hairs, as they don’t cut the hair as cleanly and precisely as a new blade.
Rinse the razor head very well in hot water between shaving strokes. This removes any debris and bacteria and stops them from coming back into contact with the skin and potentially causing irritation or infection.
We’re generally told to shave in the same direction as the hairs are growing, but one study to date has identified that participants with skin irritation from shaving had significantly less irritation when they shaves against the direction of hair growth. The take home message is to experiment and see what works best for you.
When you’ve finished your hair removal, dry the entire area gently but thoroughly with a soft cotton towel. Don’t apply any fragranced products. Wear clean, fresh, preferably natural fabric clothing after your skin is completely dry.
Consider an Alternative or Permanent Hair Removal Solution
If ingrown hairs are a problem for you, and you don’t like the idea of not shaving or waxing, you could try a different method of hair removal to the method you usually use, and see if this gives you fewer ingrown hairs.
You could also consider going to the other extreme and opting for a permanent or semi-permanent hair removal option, such as laser, for example. Here are some ideas:
Laser Hair Removal
Laser is not a one-stop, cure-all, I’m never ever going to have an ingrown hair again option. It takes time, several treatments, and the cost can be pretty high if you get it done professionally, although there are options for home laser hair removal now too.
Laser hair removal works by focusing an intense beam of light energy deep into the follicle of the hair. This damages the root and makes it more difficult for the hair to grow again. One treatment can possibly prevent the hair from growing again, but it’s more usual that it takes a few treatments for results to become permanent.
It is, however, one possible solution for ingrown hairs, because with repeated treatments there can be little or no hair growth, so ingrown hairs are less likely. Be warned, however—laser hair removal relies on the pigmentation in the hair shaft to make it work effectively.
For hair colors such as blonde and grey, laser treatment tends to be less effective than, for example, on people with brown hair. That’s not to say you can’t have it done, however, you just need to take professional advice and be aware that you may need more treatments than someone with dark hair.
This is another form of potentially permanent hair removal. It uses a pulse of electrical energy to destroy the hair root and deactivate the hair follicle. As with laser treatment, the effects can become permanent with repeated, regular treatments over a few weeks or months.
The cost of professional, salon-based electrolysis can be prohibitive, especially as several treatments are needed, but there are some options for home electrolysis now available.
Dealing With a Problem Area
If you have one specific area of problematic hair and recurrent ingrown hairs, a course of laser or electrolysis treatment could be a good option for preventing future ingrown hairs in that specific area.
Electric Razor or Clippers
Some sources suggest using an electric razor, or a set of clippers to closely trim the hair to the surface of the skin, as good options for reducing the risk of getting ingrown hairs.
When using an electric razor, don’t use the closest shave setting, and hold the razor lightly and slightly away from the skin. Don’t press the razor against the skin, or hold the skin taut while shaving.
Depilatory, or hair removal creams work by chemically weakening the hair shaft at the surface of the skin so that it can be easily removed. Because they don’t work on the root of the hair, in the follicle or below the surface level of the skin, depilatory creams tend to reduce the risk of ingrown hair.
Some depilatory creams can also reduce the rate of future hair growth, but this only works while you’re using the cream; it’s not a permanent change of the speed of hair growth. Generally these types of creams, such as eflornithine, are only available on prescriptions, so it’s best to ask your doctor for advice.
If you want to remove hair but don’t want to try a permanent treatment option, using a depilatory cream could be a good choice for you to consider.
It’s important to remember, however, that depilatory preparations can cause skin irritation, so ensure to do a patch test 24 hours before each use, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions exactly.
Other Things That May Help to Prevent Ingrown Hairs
Scientifically, there’s not a great deal of research or clinical trials that have looked closely into the prevention of ingrown hair. There are, however, some other things which might possibly help to reduce the risk of suffering from ingrown hairs.
A topical application of salicylic acid or glycolic acid, is often recommended for skin conditions such as acne and psoriasis.
This is because the salicylic acid helps to reduce swelling, inflammation and redness, as well as unblocking pores and loosening dry or dead skin cells from the surface of the skin.
All of these effects are desirable when trying to avoid ingrown hairs. Not only this, but salicylic acid also helps to keep the pores of the skin open, making it more difficult for a hair to become trapped under the skin.
It’s important to note, however, that salicylic acid and glycolic acid should not be used to treat an existing ingrown hair unless you’ve been advised to do so by your doctor; they can make things worse.
Benzoyl Peroxide Cream
There are over the counter topical preparations available that include benzoyl peroxide as an ingredient. This cream can help dry up the skin in the affected area and reduce redness and irritation.
Sugar is a natural exfoliator that most people have access to. I make my own exfoliating scrub at home with a little sugar, lemon juice, mint and tea tree oils, and apply in a circular motion to a small area of skin at a time.
Baking soda is another ingredient that can be a very useful part of a homemade exfoliation recipe. The minerals in baking soda help to reduce inflammation and soothe the skin.
It can be used by mixing it into a paste and applying the paste to the skin, or you can simply add half a tablespoon of baking soda to half a cup of water and applying it to the skin.
Some sources report that when the skin is dry, it produces flakes more easily. These flakes can cause problems and contribute to ingrown hairs by blocking the hair follicles.
Investing time, effort and a little of your hard earned cash in a good-quality, light, non-greasy moisturizer will help to keep the skin hydrated and healthy.
Used regularly, a good moisturizer can help get rid of dead skin cells, leaving less debris for the hairs to get trapped in, and can also help to unclog pores and hair follicles.
Tea Tree Oil
Well known for its antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties, tea tree oil can help to balance the skin, open the pores and hair follicles. Cynthia Olsen, author of the Australian Tea Tree Oil Guide says that adding 10 or so drops of tea tree oil to your moisturizer can help to reduce the risk of ingrown hairs.
Wear Loose Clothing
At first, this may sound like a bit of a curve ball, but when you think about it, it does make a lot of sense. Wearing tight clothing presses against the skin, and rubs against it when we move. This restriction and friction can contribute to the formation of ingrown hairs.
Wearing loose clothing, especially when made from natural fibers, helps to avoid the friction and irritation, and allows the skin to breathe. This can potentially reduce the likelihood that ingrown hairs will form.
How to Treat Ingrown Hairs
If you do notice an ingrown hair, or more than one, you need to know what to do to manage it effectively.
Very often, ingrown hairs will clear up on their own without any treatment. The first step if you notice an ingrown hair is just to make sure the surrounding area is clean and to keep an eye on the ingrown hair. Most of the time, the hair will find its own way through to the surface of the skin.
If, within a couple of weeks, the hair hasn’t emerged from the skin, we’re on to stage two…
Stop Hair Removal
If you’ve been removing hair in this area, stop doing so until the ingrown hairs emerge. When we keep shaving, waxing, plucking or using depilatory creams, the area can become even more irritated, and the skin can get more sensitive.
The skin around the ingrown hair can become itchy or irritated. Don’t be tempted to scratch or pick at it. This can introduce bacteria into the area, which can make infection much more likely. Scratching or picking at an ingrown hair can also cause scarring.
Apply a Hot Compress
A hot compress can help an ingrown hair by softening the skin and opening up the pores. Alternatively, you can gently rub a warm, wet washcloth over the surface of the affected skin. Some sources recommend using a hot compress around three times a day until the hair emerges.
Some gentle exfoliation can also help to resolve an ingrown hair. Exfoliating helps to keep the skin clear of debris and removes old, worn out skin cells. This means there is less in the way for the hair to get through to reach the skin surface.
Exfoliating also helps to give circulation a boost, which can help the surrounding tissues that have been affected by the ingrown hair to heal and repair.
Use Anti-Inflammatory Preparations
If the ingrown hair is causing a lot of pain and swelling, you might want to consider using an anti-inflammatory cream or gel to help relieve pain and decrease the inflammation.
If over the counter preparations aren’t doing the trick, your doctor or other medical professional can prescribe stronger creams and other topically applied medicine to help.
There are other medications that can also be beneficial when dealing with an ingrown hair. Retinoids, for example, such as Retin-A can help to increase the efficiency with which the body gets rid of dead skin cells, and leave fewer layers for the hair to finally make its way through.
Retinoid preparations can also help to manage any dark patches on the skin associated with ingrown hairs. Medicines such as retinoids are available on prescription, and need to be used under medical supervision due to the side effects. These kinds of topically applied medications can make the skin very dry.
Retinoids and other medicines from the same pharmaceutical group are not advised during pregnancy, as they’ve been associated with birth defects and harm to the baby.
Gently Pull the Hair
As soon as the hair emerges above the surface of the skin, pull it gently with sterile tweezers, but don’t pluck it out entirely. If the hair has a kink in it, gently pulling on it will encourage the hair to grow in the direction of the surface of the skin.
Plucking the hair out completely, however, can make things worse in a couple of different ways. Firstly, if the skin around the hair is inflamed and irritated, the skin in this area will heal over the hair follicle again, causing the next hair which grows in that follicle to be ingrown.
In addition, plucking the hair out, especially if any of the skin around the ingrown hair is broken, can lead to infection. So gently pull the hair—as if you’re trying to straighten it up—but don’t pluck it out.
Infected Ingrown Hair
One possible complication of an ingrown hair is that it can become infected. The longer the hair grows under the skin, the more likely an infection will occur, because the immune system recognizes the hair as a foreign body or invader.
You may notice more pain in the immediate area and increased swelling and redness. A bump might develop, possibly with a white center, as the follicle can fill with pus. A standard antibiotic cream or gel may be enough to help settle the infection down again. If not, it’s best to see your doctor for specialist advice.
Precautions for Use
If you’re experiencing ingrown hairs on a regular, on-going basis, it’s best to check with your doctor to see if there’s any link with an underlying cause.
If your hair growth starts to spread out and become noticeably more prolific, check with your doctor for specific advice.
So we’ve discovered that ingrown hairs are formed when hairs don’t grow straight and true out of the hair follicle, or if for some reason the hair follicle is blocked. Ingrown hairs are more likely to occur if the hair is curly or coarse, or if the actual hair follicle itself is curved or off center.
Various hair-removal methods are associated with an increased likelihood of ingrown hairs, and in particular waxing, plucking and shaving are the methods most commonly associated with ingrown hairs.
Shaving can be a particular problem, because whichever part of our body we might be shaving, we tend to hold the skin tight, which allows the hairs to shrink back slightly into the surface of the skin after they’ve been cut. Using blunt and poor-quality razors can also be contributing factors.
Ingrown hairs can be avoided, but the best ways of preventing them is to either refrain from hair removal, or choose an alternative hair removal method that causes less irritation to the skin. This is a personal choice, and is different for everyone.
Permanent and semi-permanent hair removal solutions can help to avoid ingrown hairs, since the aim is to destroy the hair at the root and prevent or reduce further hair growth from that particular follicle.
Hair removal treatments such as laser and electrolysis can be very helpful in preventing ingrown hairs in a specific problem area. They can also be used for general hair removal, but both require a series of regular treatments.
Other hair removal methods which don’t tend to cause such a high incidence of ingrown hairs are depilatory creams and electric razors or clippers.
There are various other options which can reduce the risk of ingrown hairs, such as using a topical application of salicylic acid, glycolic acid or a benzoyl peroxide cream, which can help keep the pores open and free from blockages while reducing inflammation.
Moisturizing the skin regularly is also important for maintaining skin health and stopping the skin from drying out, which can be another factor in ingrown hairs. Adding a few drops of tea tree oil to your moisturizer may also help to reduce the incidence of ingrown hairs, as can wearing loose, natural fabrics, especially for garments that are directly against the skin.
If you suffer from ingrown hairs, it’s important to know how to manage them properly, and in most cases an ingrown hair will resolve itself by finding its way out of the skin to the surface.
If you spot an ingrown hair, keep a close watch and keep the area clean, well moisturized and regularly use a gentle exfoliator. Don’t break the skin—this can cause infection or scarring. Applying a hot compress several times a day can also help to encourage the hair to emerge.
In general, ingrown hairs don’t require medical attention. However, if you notice recurring ingrown hairs in a specific area, if hair growth suddenly becomes more prolific, or if an ingrown hair becomes infected or doesn’t resolve within a couple of weeks, it’s best to seek advice from your doctor.
Ingrown hairs are something that most of us will have at some point in our lives, and now we’re ready, armed with knowledge and waiting to tackle them!