The secret to preventing ingrown hairs | Ask Doctor Anne

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If you practice any form of hair removal, I bet you have experience with the phenomenon pictured below: Ingrown hairs and razor burn. And I bet you have asked yourself: Is there no way to avoid that?

 

Ingrown hairs and razor burn on the neck after shaving
Ingrown hairs and razor burn after shaving – and no, that is not my neck, I am not THAT hairy.

Quite frankly, the best way to do that would be to just let your hair be, maybe trim it a little, but not shorter than 1 cm.
That is however something I don’t want to do, so if you like me will continue to shave, wax, epilate or tweeze, here are the best ways to prevent and treat ingrown hairs.

 

 

What is an ingrown hair?

Hair starts to grow in the hair bulb and leaves the hair follicle through the isthmus, the opening on the skin surface. When you remove the hair, two things can happen:
First, you cut it off at the skin surface with a blade, usually a razor. That gives the hair a sharp edge. If that sharp edge is now directed towards the skin again, either because your hair is naturally curly or because it is pressed down for example in your groin area, that sharp edge can pierce the skin surface again, going deeper into the skin as it continues to grow. Hair that gets into the skin anywhere other than in the follicle is considered a foreign body and will trigger an inflammatory defense mechanism, just like a splinter.

Second, if the hair isn’t cut off at the surface, but below, either because you pulled the skin taut for shaving or you waxed or epilated, the remaining hair can, instead of growing out of the isthmus, grow out of the follicle inside the surrounding tissue, maybe because the isthmus is blocked with dead skin cells or other debris, and that will also cause inflammation and redness. (More info: The secret to smaller looking pores)

 

Picture of the anatomical model of a hair
Hair follicles in the skin

 

How can you prevent ingrown hairs?

To prevent that from happening there are a few things you can do. First of all, not all methods of hair removal have the same risk for ingrown hairs. It is highest when shaving and lower with waxing or tweezing the hair. Second, you need to prepare for hair removal and then take care of your skin afterwards in the right way.

Soak the area you want to treat first either by taking a shower or by applying a warm, wet towel beforehand – you know the ones you get when you are having a facial? There is a reason you get those at a good barber as well. The warmth and humidity will make the hair swell up so if you cut it, it won’t have as sharp of an edge, so the risk of piercing the skin is lowered. Even if you don’t shave, but epilate the warmth will help the hairs get out easier, making the process less painful.

Then always use a shaving gel or shower gel or whatever you have at hand to lubricate the area, only shave in the direction the hair is growing and preferably use a sharp, single blade razor. Yes, that means that your shave isn’t as close as it would be otherwise, but it also means that the risk of cutting the hair so short it retracts below the skin surface with it’s sharp edge is much lower, meaning there is less of a risk of it growing outside the follicle. It is better to shave more often, but not get such a close shave to prevent ingrown hairs.

After hair removal moisturize the area with a product without any actives – you already irritated the skin and gave it a physical exfoliation, so let it recover. On the day after or depending on your skin, maybe the second day after, start to gently exfoliate the area to prevent dead skin cells building up that could clog the pores and trap the hair inside. (More info: Chicken Skin on arms and legs – How to avoid Keratosis Pilaris)

What you use is personal preference, it could be physical exfoliation with a mitt or a body brush, it could be a body lotion with Glycolic or Lactic Acid or, my preferred way especially for the bikini region, a 2% Salicylic Acid toner – I will leave some suggestions below.

 

Shaving after a hot towel (now over the eyes)
Shaving after a hot towel (now over the eyes)
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

 

What are the side effects of ingrown hairs?

Other than not looking good, are there side effects to ingrown hairs? Well, I for one find them quite uncomfortable and often itchy, and it is not a good look walking around scratching your groin. As it is an inflammation, it can also lead to postinflammatory hyperpigmentation especially in people of color that are more prone to that, or even scarring if it is a bigger area affected. (More info: Hyperpigmentation – Causes and treatment)

And lastly, while the initial inflammation is abacterial, meaning it is the foreign body that is triggering the inflammatory cascade, not bacteria, that can change over time. Especially when you scratch them open – did I mention they itch – with your dirty fingernails. Then the bacteria living on your skin can enter and make it a bacterial infection, something that might lead to you needing antibiotics due to a systemic spread.

So yes, while they are usually just annoying, ingrown hairs can have lasting adverse effects.

 

Some people find that epilating works better than shaving to prevent ingrown hairs
Some people find that epilating works better than shaving to prevent ingrown hairs

 

How can you treat ingrown hairs?

Now if all these preventative measures didn’t work and you end up with a few of these bumps after shaving, how do you best get rid of them?

NOT by scratching them open with your fingernails or going at them with a pair of tweezers you found in your bathroom cabinet! I know that can be tempting, especially if you see the hair right there under the surface, but going at it with dirty utensils will only worsen the situation.

Instead of trying to operate on yourself, apply warmth to the skin, use a spot treatment with salicylic acid or an AHA to loosen the cells on the skin’s surface and wait for the hair to emerge. If you are confident in what you are doing, you can use a sterile needle and try to get it underneath the hair, but remember: Picking at your inflammation, be it acne or an ingrown hair, can lead to much worse pigmentation or scarring than you would have ended up with in the first place.

And if it isn’t one or two bumps, but a whole area, leave it be for a while without trying to remove any more hair. Once the hairs reach a certain length, they often extract themselves, and shaving over the existing bumps will only lead to bleeding and potential bacterial superinfection.
It goes without saying that, should you experience signs of a systemic inflammation like fever, dizziness or a huge swelling in that area, you should see a doctor about it because you might need antibiotics.

 

Woman with acne lesions on the side of her face
No matter if acne or ingrown hairs – don’t pick!
Image by Alexander Grey from Pixabay

 

TL;DR

Ingrown hairs can appear after any type of hair removal, but are most common after shaving when the hair is left with a sharp edge that either grows back into the skin, common in people with curly hair, or grows in the tissue surrounding the hair follicle due to the follicular exit being blocked by dead skin cells and debris.
To prevent that, soak the area before shaving, don’t stretch the skin, use a shaving gel or similar and a clean, preferably single blade razor while shaving in the direction of hair growth. In the days after hair removal, exfoliate regularly and don’t try to retrieve ingrown hairs with dirty tweezers or your fingernails, that could lead to a bacterial infection.
Aside from being uncomfortable and unsightly, ingrown hairs can lead to pigmentation and scarring.

And remember: The safest way to prevent ingrown hairs would be to just leave your body hair be.

 

The secret to preventing and treating ingrown hairs
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