Talk about a hairy situation
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Caring for your skin is tricky business. Oily skin can actually be a sign of dehydration, a rash can actually be eczema—and what appear to be pimples may be caused by a hair trapped under the skin, not bacteria. But when you’re examining the skin at a glance—and with untrained eyes—these intricacies aren’t obvious.
When it comes to ingrown hairs, many people have them with regularity but may not even recognize that is what they are. To help explain why you get these nuisances and what to do about them, we spoke to Dr. Clarissa Yang, the chief of dermatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
Ingrown hairs are ones that become trapped underneath the skin, rather than growing up and out of the hair follicle as normal. These hairs burrow into the skin or they grow out and then curl back into the skin. Sometimes, you can even see the hair underneath the surface of the skin, but other times, they present as a red, pimple- or razor burn-like bump.
They can be uncomfortable, mostly due to the inflammation that can occur as a result of the irregular hair growth. “It’s actually a foreign body reaction [to the ingrown hairs] because they’re not supposed to live under the skin, so that causes inflammation,” says Dr. Yang.
Whether or not you get ingrown hairs is (mostly) out of your control, as it’s dependent on your hair type and how it grows. If you have straight hair, your hair follicle is a circle; if your hair is wavy or curly, the hair follicle is oval; and if you have coily hair, your follicle is an even flatter oval. People with curly or coily hair usually experience ingrown hairs more often due to the shape of the hair follicle and the fact that the hair grows in a spiral instead of straight out.
Certain areas of the body are also more prone to ingrown hairs. “It’s more common in areas of curvature like the neck [and] the armpits,” says Dr. Yang. Areas where the hair is irritated by shaving or clothing are also more likely to develop ingrown hairs. “Some people [also] get ingrown hairs along the neckline where they shave, but it worsens because people wear collared shirts and it rubs against that area,” she says.
Because your proclivity toward experiencing ingrown hairs is so closely linked to your hair texture and growth patterns, there isn’t a foolproof way to prevent them from occurring. But Yang says you can limit one main irritating factor: your hair removal habits. If you shave, it may behoove you to use techniques that don’t clip the hair off as close to the surface of the skin. For example, single-blade razor won't shave as closely as a multi-blade razor, which pulls out the hair a little before clipping them, making it more likely that the hair left under the skin could grow under the skin rather than out. Other razor advice: Try shaving in the direction of hair growth, rather than against it, and using a lubricant prior to breaking out the razor to prevent snagging at the hair and skin that could cause irritation.
Yang also suggests trimming hair instead of shaving because it involves only cutting the hair above the surface, or seeking laser hair removal treatments, which delay hair growth by damaging the sacs in the skin that produce hair, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Apart from hair removal, you can also exfoliate the areas prone to ingrown hairs using chemical exfoliants like alpha and beta hydroxy acids, or a physical exfoliant, like a washcloth. Exfoliation removes dead skin cells and turns cells over faster, which can help the hairs come out easier.
Much like preventing ingrown hairs, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy to treating already existing ones. “The things that you could do are the same things that I think would help minimize them,” Yang says. This includes using exfoliators and limiting or stopping shaving in the affected area.
While you wait for an ingrown hair to correct itself, treat inflammation with a topical agent, like an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, such as Cortizone 10. If swelling or redness gets worse, contact your doctor for treatments. For the most part, though, Dr. Yang says the ingrown hairs will work themselves out over time.
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