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Ingrown hair

An ingrown hair occurs when a shaved or tweezed hair grows back into the skin, causing inflammation and irritation. Ingrown hairs are most common among black males ages 14 to 25. But an ingrown hair can affect anyone with tightly coiled hair who shaves, tweezes, waxes or uses electrolysis to remove hair.

The result of ingrown hairs is localized pain and the appearance of bumps in the hair removal area. The bumps can be embarrassing.

Not removing hair is one way to avoid an ingrown hair. When that isn't an option, you can use hair removal methods that lessen the risk of developing ingrown hairs.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Ingrown hairs most commonly appear in males in the beard area, including the chin and cheeks and, especially, the neck. They can appear on the scalp in males who shave their heads. In females, the most common areas for ingrown hairs are the armpits, pubic area and legs. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Small, solid, rounded bumps (papules)
  • Small, pus-filled, blister-like lesions (pustules)
  • Skin darkening (hyperpigmentation)
  • Pain
  • Itching
  • Embedded hairs

When to see a doctor

An occasional ingrown hair isn't cause for alarm. See your doctor if:

  • Ingrown hairs are a chronic condition. Your doctor can help you manage the condition.
  • You're a woman with ingrown hairs as a result of excessive unwanted hair growth (hirsutism). Your doctor can determine whether your excess hair is a result of treatable hormonal abnormalities, such as polycystic ovary syndrome.

Hair structure and direction of growth play a role in ingrown hairs. A curved hair follicle, which produces tightly curled hair, is believed to encourage the hair to re-enter the skin once the hair is cut and starts to grow back. Shaving creates sharp edges in this type of hair, especially if the hair is dry when shaved. When the shaved hair starts to grow out, it curls back to re-enter the skin (extrafollicular penetration).

When you pull your skin taut during shaving, the newly cut hair draws back into the skin, causing it to re-enter the skin without first growing out (transfollicular penetration). Using a double-edged razor also causes hair to re-enter the skin — the first blade pulls the hair out and the second blade cuts it, which allows the hair to retract. Transfollicular penetration also occurs with tweezing, which leaves a hair fragment under the skin surface.

When a hair penetrates your skin, your skin reacts as it would to a foreign body — it becomes inflamed.

Having tightly curled hair is the main risk factor for ingrown hairs, so the condition is more common among blacks and Hispanics.

Chronic ingrown hairs can lead to:

  • Bacterial infection (from scratching)
  • Skin darkening (hyperpigmentation)
  • Permanent scarring

To help prevent ingrown hairs, use hair removal methods that make ingrown hairs less likely.

If you shave:

  • Wet the hair to be removed with warm water
  • Avoid close shaves and consider using an electric razor
  • Use a lubricating shave gel
  • Use a single-blade razor
  • Use a sharp blade
  • Don't pull your skin taut while shaving
  • Shave in the direction of hair growth
  • Rinse the blade after each stroke
  • Apply cool compresses to the shaved area when you're finished

Other methods of hair removal include:

  • Electric razor. Avoid the closest shave setting.
  • Chemical hair remover. The chemicals may irritate your skin, so test on a small area first.
  • Eflornithine hydrochloride cream (Vaniqa). Not actually a hair remover, this prescription cream decreases hair regrowth in women when combined with another hair removal method.
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