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Ingrown Hair

Strange bumps have sprung up on your face. They're not exactly pimples. They're not hives, either. Could they be ingrown hairs?

Ingrown hairs are hairs that have curled around and grown back into your skin instead of rising up from it.

Sometimes, dead skin can clog up a hair follicle. That forces the hair inside it to grow sideways under the skin, rather than upward and outward. Sometimes, cutting naturally curly hair too closely will result in the sharpened end of the hair piercing the skin, causing an ingrown hair.

Ingrown hairs aren't serious. But they can be irritating and embarrassing.

What Does an Ingrown Hair Look Like?

An ingrown hair irritates the skin. It produces a raised, red bump (or group of bumps) that looks like a little pimple. Sometimes an ingrown hair can form a painful, boil-like sore.

Ingrown hairs can be itchy and uncomfortable, especially if you've got a lot of them. You may notice pus inside the bumps. Or you may see the hair that's causing the problem.

In men, ingrown hairs often pop up as a bunch of little bumps on the chin, cheeks, or neck after shaving.

In women, ingrown hairs are common on the legs, as well as in the pubic area and armpits. You can also get ingrown hairs on your buttocks.

Ingrown Hair Causes

Anyone can get an ingrown hair. But the problem is more common in people who have very curly or coarse hair. Curly hair is more likely to bend back and re-enter the skin, especially after it's been shaved or cut.

Also, people with high levels of certain sex hormones can have excessive hair growth, which makes it more likely to get ingrown hairs, especially after shaving.

Many African-Americans, Latinos, and people with thick or curly hair develop a type of ingrown hair called pseudofolliculitis. More commonly known as "razor bumps," this collection of little bumps is common on the beard area after you've shaved, waxed, or tweezed to remove unwanted hair. The hair that grows back has a sharper edge, so it can more easily poke back through the skin and get trapped under the surface.

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Ingrown Hair Treatment

Often, an ingrown hair will go away on its own. If it doesn't go away, an ingrown hair can become infected, darken the skin, or leave behind a scar, especially if you've been scratching or picking at it.

If an ingrown hair is bothering you or has become infected, your doctor can make a small cut in your skin with a sterile needle or scalpel to release it. Your doctor may also prescribe medicine such as:

  • Steroid medicine that you rub on your skin to bring down the swelling and irritation
  • Retinoids (Retin A) to remove dead skin cells and reduce the skin pigment changes that can occur from ingrown hairs
  • Antibiotic that you take by mouth or rub onto your skin to treat an ingrown hair infection

There isn't any real treatment for ingrown hair other than to grow out your beard. Longer hairs aren't as sharp at the ends, so they won't be as likely to curl around and break through the skin. But for men who prefer a clean shave -- or women -- avoiding the razor may not be an option.

Ingrown Hair Prevention

To prevent ingrown hairs, try these tips every time you shave:

  • Every day, rub your face in a circular motion using a wet washcloth or an exfoliating scrub to tease out any stubborn ingrown hairs.
  • Shave with a sharp, single-bladed razor.
  • Wet your skin with warm water before shaving and apply a lubricating gel.
  • Shave in the same direction your hair is growing.
  • Use as few strokes of the razor as possible. That lessens the chance of a hair slipping back into your skin.
  • Rinse the blade with water after every stroke.
  • Don't shave too closely to your skin. Leave a little bit of stubble if you can.
  • If you're using an electric razor, hold it slightly above the surface of your skin.
  • Apply a cool washcloth to your skin after you shave to reduce irritation.

You can also try other hair removal methods that are less likely to produce ingrown hairs. Those methods include depilatory creams that dissolve the hair, and a laser or electric current (electrolysis) to permanently remove the hair follicle.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on January 24, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Komaroff, A. L. Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Blume-Peytavi, U. Hair Growth and Disorders, Springer, 2008.

Chamlin, S. Living with Skin Conditions, Infobase Publishing, 2010.

Hall, B. J. Sauer's Manual of Skin Diseases, Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2010.

Merck Manuals: "Ingrown Beard Hairs."

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