Ingrown Hair – Causes, Treatment and Prevention
What are Ingrown Hairs?
An ingrown hair is one of those very aptly named, pesky things that is more or less explained in the name.
That is to say that it is a hair that has grown sideways or back in on itself below the skin instead of out through its surface.
Sometimes the hair will protrude slightly and then curl back round and down the shaft of the hair follicle leaving a tiny loop, but often it will not break the surface at all.
You can see, therefore, why they occur more commonly in those with thick, curly hair or in areas of the body where such hair is more prevalent.
What can Cause Hair to Become Ingrown?
Ironically, the major cause of ingrown hairs is the process of hair removal.
If you take shaving, for example, when the hair is cut at the skin's surface, it causes the the hair to have a sharp end. If this then bends, it makes it easier for the hair to penetrate below the skin and continue growing.
Shaving with a dull blade is particularly bad as the tendency then is to push the blade against the skin too hard - a really sharp blade and a very light touch is best for avoiding ingrown hairs.
Ingrown hairs from shaving, often known as razor bumps (medically termed pseudofolliculitis barbae), is a very common occurrence for many men (and women).
This is particularly true amongst African-American males because of their tendency for very curly, coarse body hair.
Waxing and Tweezing
Waxing or tweezing removes hair by pulling it out at the root.
However, sometimes the hair will break off unevenly during this process, particularly when waxing, if the hair is not long enough for the wax to adhere to sufficiently strongly.
Breaking the hair in this way will also cause sharp ends, and so the same effect is seen as with shaving.
Dead Skin Cells
The outer layer of skin, known as the epidermis consists of several layers, the outermost of which (the stratum corneum) is made up of many layers of dead skin cells.
Whilst these are important in helping to defend our body against environmental impacts and water loss, there can be a build-up of dead skin cells and naturally produced skin oil (sebum).
This can have the effect of clogging the pores and hair follicles, making it more difficult for newly growing hair to break through and thus ingrowns are born.
Signs and Symptoms
Ingrown hairs, can cause raised, red, pimple-like spots or rashes on the skin and are often pus-filled.
These can be unsightly, irritating, sore and itchy but it is important not to scratch or squeeze them, as it could lead to scarring or infection.
If they become infected, a very common condition known as folliculitis, symptoms may be mild and transient and treated at home.
In more severe cases, folliculitis can lead to oozy blisters that crust over, or wider areas of red skin that becomes swollen and leaky.
In this case, if the symptoms have persisted or worsened over a few days, you should seek medical advice.
Apart from anything else, there are other skin conditions that may have a similar appearance e.g. acne or contact dermatitis, so a proper diagnosis is important.
How to Get Rid of Existing Ingrown Hairs
Just about everyone experiences ingrown hairs at some point and t is possible that, if not serious, they will abate and disappear naturally if you leave them alone.
However, to get rid of more persistent ingrowns may require a little help:
If you can see that the hair is near the skins surface, you can help it to break through by gentle exfoliation once or twice a day to remove surface debris and oils.
Do this by using an exfoliation brush, mitten or washcloth using a circular motion and taking care not to be too harsh - gentle and often are the keys to success with this procedure.
Apply a compress, as hot as you can comfortably bear, which will help to draw the hair out, much as it does for splinters.
You can use a washcloth steeped in hot water, applied to the area until it cools, then repeat the process several times.
Salicylic Acid is a chemical exfoliant, that dissolves keratin in the skin to soften and peel it, getting rid of dead skin cells and oil build up so that the hair can more easily grow out.
Whilst Benzoyl Peroxide has a similar peeling effect, it also has the advantage of having antiseptic qualities, both reducing bacteria and acting as an anti-inflammatory.
The first thing to do is exfoliate as described, to ensure that the skin around the ingrown hair is clear of dead skin cells, clean and free from bacteria.
Then use your hot compress, to soften the skin and draw the hair up nearer to the surface.
Ensure there is sufficient light so that you can see what you are doing - a magnifying mirror can also help with this, if required.
Carefully use one tip of the tweezers to tease out the end of the hair, being very careful not to penetrate down deep into the skin.
If you have problematic, deeply embedded ingrown hairs you will need to seek proper medical advice.
Once you have the hair protruding from the skin, the very best thing you can do is dab with an antiseptic and then leave it alone to grow out naturally for a few days before you remove it.
This will give the skin a chance to recover and help avoid the hair simply growing back deeper.
Minimising the Risk of Ingrown Hairs
Hair Removal Methods
Probably the best hair removal method for eliminating the risk, and even treating ingrown hair, is Electrolysis.
Providing you want to remove the hair permanently and have deep pockets, as you will have to go to a salon for costly professional treatments, electrolysis is very effective.
Electrolysis is suitable for all skin and hair types and tones, can be used for all areas of the body and will permanently stop the hair from regrowing.
Next best is laser or IPL, which uses intense light to target melanin (dark pigment) deep into the hair follicle to damage it and cause the hair to fall out.
Subsequently, any regrowth is either weakened by the damage, or non-existent, so that over time the amount of hair is permanently reduced.
There are a number of effective home IPL devices on the market, so that you have the option of cheaper and more convenient treatments, although they are not as powerful as the commercial machines used by professionals.
The downside of laser/IPL is that best results are achieved for those with dark hair and pale skin and is only suitable for skin tones I - IV on the Fitzpatrick scale (though some commercial lasers can nowadays treat darker skin tones).
Laser/IPL hair removal is not effective for light blond, grey, white or red hair.
Depilatory creams are another method that reduces the risk of ingrown hair, but if you are already bothered by them you will need to let your skin recover first.
It is important not to use depilatories on irritated, broken or sore skin and always carry out a patch test as per instructions first, to check for possible allergies.
Other than the alternative methods listed above, short of giving up on hair removal and leaving it to grow, it is just about impossible to eliminate ingrown hairs completely.
Assuming that you do not wish to go "au naturel" and allow your body hair to remain in all its glory, I have listed a few ways in which you can keep them to a minimum:
Shaving is the quickest, most convenient method of hair removal, especially for the male beard area.
Unfortunately, it is also one of the worst offenders when it comes to irritating the skin and producing ingrown hair.
So here are a few simple measures you can take to help:
Waxing is another very popular method of hair removal which invariably leads to ingrown hairs to one degree or another.
If you go to a salon, you will not have to worry about method and you will no doubt be given aftercare information.
However, if you are waxing at home, here is our best advice:
Using an epilator pulls the hair out at the root, in a similar way to waxing and tweezing.
However, it is less messy and more convenient to do anywhere, with just the initial outlay for the epilator in terms of cost.
Again, ingrown hairs can be a consequence: