Ingrown hair is hair that grows into the skin instead of outward. Hair removal methods such as shaving, waxing or tweezing can cause ingrown hairs, often producing itchy, painful red bumps similar to pimples. These are sometimes pus-filled. Sites can eventually become infected, show skin colour change or scarring from scratching and picking.

If you notice signs of possible infection, contact your doctor.

Ingrown hair tends to show up in areas where you remove hair. In men, this usually means the face and neck; in women, ingrown hairs can affect the face, armpits, legs and bikini area.

Having tightly curled hair increases the chance of ingrown hairs because the curved hair follicle may orient hairto grow sideways, in the direction of the skin.  People with curly, kinky, or afro-textured hair have a higher tendency to develop ingrown hairs because of their tight curls.

Removal methods may also play a role. Shaving typically cuts hair at an angle, which may enable the hair to curve inward to the skin. Pulling skin taut while shaving may also contribute to forming ingrown hairs since the hair ends retract under the skin. Waxing pulls hair out by the root. When hair re-grows it can grow to the side and into the skin, rather than straight outwards past the skin’s surface.

The simplest solution is to not remove hair, but that is not acceptable for many people. There are other measures you can do like adopt simpler hair reduction practices such as trimming hairs close to the skin surface with cuticle scissors, reduced how often you do shaving and other hair removal methods. Use of over-the-counter lotions with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or glycolic acid in between hair removal sessions can keep the skin smooth and decrease the tendency to form ingrown hairs.

Your doctor may prescribe various medications that can help control ingrown hair.

A retinoid (e.g. Retin-A*, Stieva-A) cream can be used to promote exfoliation and enhance skin turnover. It can also treat dark spots and thickened skin caused by ingrown hairs. This prescription treatment is generally used sparingly at night to affected areas.

A topical steroid cream can help to reduce inflammation, redness and swelling. It is available over-the-counter in a low strength, or your doctor may prescribe a higher concentration with specific instructions for use.

Antibiotics may be required to treat an infected ingrown hair. A topical formula can be used on the affected area, or your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic for a more severe infection.

*Please note that the mention of a specific brand name does not constitute a recommendation for the product by the Canadian Dermatology Association.