An ingrown hair is what happens when a hair curls back and grows into the skin. It’s a red, raised bump that looks like a pimple. They can be itchy and uncomfortable and in some instances, they can become infected and turn into painful sores. No one wants that. Even if you can’t feel your ingrown hairs, they’re frustrating to look at, especially when you want to show off your smooth, newly shaven skin!
We’re here to help. In this epic guide for preventing and treating ingrown hairs, we walk you through what causes them, how to treat them, how to prevent them, and what products to use in your hair removal routine.
What Causes Ingrown Hairs?
Although anyone can get ingrown hairs, they’re most common among people with coarse or curly hair. They often occur when a hair follicle becomes clogged with dead skin cells. We shed about 600,000 particles of skin every hour. If those particles - also known as the "dead layer" or the stratum corneum - aren’t removed, they trap hairs under the epidermis, causing ingrowns.
(Here’s what an ingrown hair looks like via SheFinds in case you’re not sure.)
Various forms of hair removal are also responsible for causing ingrown hairs. Shaving is one such culprit, hence the reason they’re often referred to as razor bumps. Hint: we’ve got something to help with that.
Advertisers often tell us that the more blades, the better. That first started when plastic manufacturing was introduced. Companies realized they could produce more low-quality products for less that had to be replaced more often. Because of that trend, two billion plastic razors end up in landfills today.
In order to give you the smooth shave razor companies promise, multi-blade razors are designed with a “lift and cut” system. One blade lifts the hair, the next cuts the hair below the skin line as you shave. The problem occurs when your hair starts growing back. It can become trapped below the skin, causing dead skin cells to find their way into the hair follicle. The result is an ingrown hair that’s painful and inflamed.
Aggressive razors with multiple blades were designed for coarse facial hair so they’d achieve a smoother shave with fewer passes. In other words, they’re better designed for men’s faces, not women’s bodies.
Dull blades can cause the same problem. When you shave with dull blades, they leave the end of the hair jagged as opposed to a clean cut, resulting in irritation as the hair grows back.
Waxing pulls hairs directly from the root. Each hair follicle is connected to a small tube, which is responsible for guiding the hair to the surface when it grows back. Waxing pulls the hair so quickly that the follicle and tube become damaged. When the tube’s lining is damaged, it can’t guide the hair. The hair becomes caught under the skin, causing ingrowns.
A similar occurrence happens when epilating. An epilator is similar to an electric shaver. It has a rotating head of tweezers that traps hairs and pulls them from the root as it is run across the skin. This creates the same damaging effect as waxing.
Finally, tight clothing can cause ingrown hairs, especially tight underwear. Skin is its healthiest when it's allowed to breathe. The elastic in tight underwear presses into the skin, trapping hair as it begins to grow back and giving way to bothersome ingrown hairs. Try wearing loose boy shorts or soft 100% cotton underwear.
How to Treat Ingrown Hairs
Ingrown hairs will typically go away on their own if you leave them alone. But if they don’t or if you have an fabulous beach day ahead of you, here are four steps to speed up the process.
Step one: Stop all hair removal attempts. Don't try to pluck, pull, shave, wax, or cut hair in the area where ingrown hairs are. Don’t try to squeeze it out either. You'll only make your skin angrier and possibly introduce an infection.
Step two: Apply a warm compress and gently exfoliate. Using a soft washcloth soaked in warm - not hot - water, gently press into the irritated area for 10-15 minutes to soften skin. Then use slow, circular motions to very gently exfoliate for only 10-15 seconds. Skip exfoliating if it hurts or makes your skin more irritated.
Step three: Remove the ingrown hair. This step only applies if you can see the looped hair growing into your skin. Don’t go digging for treasure or you’ll cause dark spots or scarring. If you can't see the tip, skip to step four. If you can see the hair, use a clean, sharp tool like pointed tweezers to remove it. Free it from the skin first. If it comes out easily, gently pull the entire hair out. Make sure your tweezers are strong enough to get the whole hair so you don't have to repeat the process all over again. If it doesn't come out easily, leave it be. It'll be ready soon. After the hair becomes free, the redness and swelling should subside quite quickly.
Step four: Apply an exfoliating and anti-bacterial oil. Now that you've dealt with the hair itself, use a topical exfoliating oil to calm and soothe the skin while helping to prevent more irritation. Our Aftershave Toner offers rosewater to calm and soothe the skin, while the astringent properties of witch hazel relieve skin inflammation.
Other herbs that can help with inflammation include primrose oil, fenugreek, and turmeric, according to this Livestrong article. We personally just love the smell of lavender. This Healthline article claims that tea tree oil and lotions with oatmeal calm irritated skin as well.
Is It Infected?
Your ingrown hair will likely only become infected if you continue to irritate it with hair removal or by picking at it. You’ll know you have an ingrown hair infection if it gets progressively more red and irritated, if it swells, itches, or feels warm to touch.
(We were going to post a photo of an infected ingrown hair but they can be pretty jarring. We suggest Googling it and checking out a medical website you trust.)
If those symptoms apply to you, try taking the treatment steps above. If your symptoms don’t get better, see a doctor.
How to Prevent Ingrown Hairs
Preventing ingrown hairs is all about removing dead skin and removing hairs in a way that won’t cause them to curl back. Here are simple steps to prevent ingrown hairs.
Shave With a Sharp, Single-Blade Razor
The National Health Service of UK says a single-blade safety razor is the best razor for ingrown hairs. In fact, switching to a sharp, single-blade razor is the most important thing you can do to prevent ingrown hairs.
A sharp and clean safety razor will cut off the hair bluntly in one pass without catching or dragging hairs. The razor won't clog (because it’s one blade!), meaning less bacteria buildup.
Another effective thing you can do to prevent ingrown hairs is to exfoliate. Exfoliating removes the dead skin cells that could potentially clog pores and helps lift the hairs away from the skin, allowing the razor to cut closer to the skin. It’s important to exfoliate no matter what, but especially before you shave.
To exfoliate, use a washcloth if your skin is extra sensitive and a hydrating scrub if it's extra dry. We like this scrub from SW Basics.
Another option is dry brushing. It’s an ancient ayurvedic technique and in addition to removing dead skin sells, it also kick starts your lymphatic system, which helps remove toxins from the body. Here’s a dry brush from The Organic Pharmacy recommended by Goop.
Adopt a new shaving technique
Exfoliate first then soften your hair with water. A warm shower helps soften hair, making it easier to remove.
Moisturize. There should always be a hydrating barrier between your skin and the blade to cushion the contact when the razor meets your skin. Try a shaving oil or cream. Using just water or even soap and water can cause the razor to drag on your hairs and skin. Shaving oil lubricates your skin and blade and softens your hair, creating a smoother surface for your blade to glide over. It protects your skin and leaves it super moisturized. For the more budget conscious, we also really like using coconut oil as a shave cream. Just make sure it’s organic!
Press lightly. We've been conditioned to press the razor into our skin to get the closest shave. Don't. Pressure contributes to the irritation we experience after shaving. The handle of the Oui Shave razor is weighted so you don’t have to apply pressure.
Shave with the grain. If your skin is extra sensitive, start by shaving with the grain (the direction in which your hair grows). Shaving against the grain seems intuitive to get the closest shave but it can cause irritation. When shaving with the grain, there's less risk of cutting hair below the skin. Make sure to rinse your razor often so there’s no gunk or hair on it.
Pay attention to your razor angle. If your skin is less sensitive, there’s less need to focus on which direction you’re shaving in. When shaving your underarms, stretch the skin taut by placing your arm high above or behind your head. Shave up and down, but also try an X pattern. Since our hair grows in multi-directions, this helps to catch every little bit. When shaving your legs, make sure the razor is at the 30-degree angle so the blade gently grazes your skin. Take short strokes and keep your touch light. To get the knees, bend your leg to tighten the skin.
Change your blade often. Once you feel like the razor is tugging at your hairs rather than cutting them quickly and sharply, it's time to change the blade. Everyone's hair is different (fine, coarse, thick), so the timing will vary for each individual.
Peep this short video demonstrating the most effective way to shave:
Alternative Hair Removal Options
Depilatory (it means ‘removing the hair’) creams are less likely to cause ingrown hair than other hair removal techniques available but they’re chock-full of chemicals. We don’t like putting anything on our skin that we can’t eat.
Electrolysis or laser hair removal is another option if you can afford it. If there’s no hair growing, no ingrowns can occur. However, it’s pretty painful and a large investment up front.
Avoid Tight Underwear/Clothes
We already explained why tight clothes cause ingrown hairs. Try to avoid them, especially right after shaving or waxing. Let your skin breath, baby!
Summer is around the corner and now is a great time to get your skin sundress ready. Start by giving your skin some time to breath. Try going a few days or longer without shaving. Then ditch that pink, plastic razor and show your skin the respect it deserves!