Like being summoned for jury duty or having to do taxes, getting ingrown hair is one of those sad, unavoidable nuisances in life. As it turns out, anyone who has any body hair (on their face, their armpits, their legs, their, um, private parts) is susceptible to ingrowns. That essentially means everybody.
To understand how to remedy an ingrown or prevent it from happening in the first place, you have to know how it’s formed. Basically what happens is, instead of growing upward and outward, an ingrown hair will curl back onto itself, creating a loop and becoming trapped below the skin’s surface.
There are a few things that can trigger the problem: hair removal methods (shaving, waxing, applying depilatory creams) and environmental factors (sweating, oil secretion, and friction from wearing too-tight pants or working out). The chance of it occurring increases when the hair is naturally curly, coarse, and wiry. So, when an ingrown pops up, what do you do?
Resist popping an ingrown or self-extracting the hair
The worst thing you can do is try to open it up or use tweezers to remove the embedded hair. “That can lead to infection,” says dermatologist Shasa Hu, MD, FAAD, and co-founder of BIA Life. “A lot of times, if you pick an ingrown or try to do a self-extraction, the scarring is worse.”
Instead, start topical treatments
Hu recommends a regimen of AHA/BHA exfoliating cleansers with salicylic or glycolic acid, an over-the-counter retinol (every two or three days), and benzoyl peroxide cream to target the spot and kill bacteria. But Hu warns not to treat all ingrown hairs the same: “The skin on our armpits and the groin area are a little more sensitive than anywhere else, so we can’t be as aggressive with the treatment—use a lower concentration or a milder formula.”
Take a break from shaving
The biggest misconception is to keep shaving, but “that’s what leads to ingrown hairs in the first place,” Hu says. Lay off all types of hair removal until the ingrown heals.
Think about the aftermath
Once the bump heals, an ingrown usually leaves behind a brown mark, which is “what usually gets people to make an appointment with the doctor,” says Hu, who has found that most of her patients don’t mind the ingrown itself, but are bothered by the pigmentation. She recommends mild lightening agents with soy, liquorice root extract, kojic or azelaic acid, or other naturally derived ingredients that should be applied once an ingrown is formed in order to reduce the chance or prevent discolouration from occurring.
“You don’t want to use anything too harsh because an ingrown is already sensitive otherwise it could make it worse by inducing inflammation,” she says. “If you start with something gentler right away at targeting pigmentation, you’ll get a better result.”
Use a warm compress to speed up the process
An ingrown starts off as a hard and painful bump, but during the healing process, it becomes softer and redder until the shaft of the hair is visible. By applying a warm compress (not too hot, cautions Hu), it can promote circulation and speed everything up by a day or two.
If the pain becomes too unbearable, see your doctor
Your dermatologist will prescribe a brief course of antibiotics to treat the infection and to decrease inflammation. For severe cases, Hu says a cortisone shot (the same one that’s used for acne) will be administered.
To prevent ingrown hairs, consider laser hair removal
“The most effective way of preventing an ingrown hair is to get rid of the follicle entirely, which is through laser hair removal,” Hu says.
If not, then resist a close shave or shave not as frequently
But if laser hair removal is not an option, Hu advises using a single-blade razor instead of one with multiple blades that promise a close shave, spacing out when you shave, and shaving with the direction of the hair rather than against it. “Preventing ingrown hairs is actually counterintuitive—recurring ingrown hair stems from shaving or waxing,” she says. “We think hair comes out of the skin vertically, but it’s not true—it’s actually about 45 to 60 degrees, so when you’re slicing the hair shaft at an oblique angle, the end becomes a blade rather a stump, which can irritate the skin and form an ingrown.”
Waxing is different since you’re removing the hair from the base, which won’t create a blade. But, because you’re removing a large area of hair at once, it disrupts the natural growth cycle. And then it becomes a numbers game. “The more hair you have growing at once, the likelihood of getting an ingrown is higher,” Hu says.
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This article first appeared on ELLE.