Summertime means shedding layers, and maybe even some hair, too. Whether you’re shaving your legs, underarms, bikini line or even your face, hair removal runs the risk of causing ingrown hairs. But don’t let these pesky bumps ruin the smooth skin that you’re after. With the right products and techniques, you can get rid of ingrowns safely and efficiently, without causing further irritation. Here, we speak to two skin care experts on how to do it.
What is an ingrown hair?
“Ingrown hairs occur when the hair curves backward and pierces the skin or becomes trapped under the skin,” says Dr. Caroline Robinson, dermatologist and founder of Tone Dermatology.
“Areas on the body with thicker hairs, such as the beard area or bikini area, are particularly prone to ingrown hairs, especially in those with curly hair types,” Robinson says.
While ingrown hairs are often hardly noticeable, some can become a problem and cause irritation. You’ll see a small bump, which can be red like a pimple, and you may experience some itchiness or soreness. “When a hair becomes ingrown it can lead to inflammation, pustules or inflamed cysts, and when this happens on the face we refer to it as pseudofolliculitis barbae,” Robinson explains.
What causes ingrown hairs?
“Ingrown hairs are caused by hair removal,” says Amy Peterson, medical aesthetician and founder of Miami medspa Skincare by Amy Peterson. While she says that any type of hair removal (except for laser hair removal, since that eliminates the hair follicle altogether) can cause ingrown hairs, shaving is the most common culprit. “Incorrect shaving techniques are especially prone to causing ingrown hairs,” Peterson warns.
Robinson agrees, noting that skin irritation and inflammation from aggressive shaving, known as razor burn, can also accompany ingrown hairs.
After hair removal, dead skin cells can block the hair follicle, causing the hair to grown inwards.
How to prevent ingrown hairs
Preventing ingrown hairs when shaving actually starts with the skin. “Exfoliation is the key to preventing ingrown hairs. That’s really the only way you can prevent them,” Peterson says.
“It is important to prepare the skin and hair before shaving by loosening the hairs with a gentle exfoliating cleanser such as one that contains alpha or beta hydroxy acids,” Robinson advises. “This can help to remove dead skin cells and oil, minimizing the risk of trapping hairs during the hair removal process.”
As for shaving itself, both experts echo that you should always shave in the direction the hair is growing to minimize irritation. And afterwards, Robinson recommends applying a soothing serum to the area. “A soothing topical serum can be helpful to calm the skin, reduce itch and minimize the risk of ingrown hairs,” she says.
You may also want to follow up with a moisturizer that contains salicylic acid or a topical retinoid. “Using creams with salicylic acid can help open the pores and follicles, preventing them from clogging, thus preventing ingrown hairs,” Peterson says. Likewise, using a retinoid can be an effective way to prevent ingrown hairs on the face. “This can increase skin cell turnover and prevent hairs from becoming trapped under layers of skin,” Robinson says. She doesn’t recommend using retinoids in the bikini area “because this can be very irritating.”
How to treat ingrown hairs
If you do find yourself with ingrown hairs, treating them requires the same tactic as preventing them — exfoliation. The method with which you exfoliate — a physical exfoliator versus a chemical exfoliator — depends on the area you’re treating.
Step 1: Prepare the skin
Start in the shower or after you’ve washed your face with warm water, as the steam will help soften the skin. A hot compress can also make it easier for the hair to come out from underneath.
Step 2: Exfoliate
For the bikini line, underarms or other areas that can handle a little sloughing, Peterson says you can use a dry brush or granular exfoliators “to bring the ingrown hair to the surface of the skin.” On the face, the aesthetician advises using a chemical or very gentle physical exfoliant instead.
When using a topical exfoliator, it may take a few days or rounds of treatment for the ingrown hair to emerge. If it’s still being stubborn, move to step three.
Step 3: Grab the tweezers
For hairs that aren’t embedded too far into the skin, you can use tweezers to gently release the hair, but just be careful not to pierce the skin or cause damage. If the ingrown hair is deeper, see your dermatologist to get it safely and professionally removed.
And if you really struggle with ingrown hairs, you may consider permanent hair removal. “For severe cases, laser hair removal is a great option for those who no longer want hair in the area,” Robinson says.
Otherwise, proper shaving techniques and topicals are your best bet for treating and preventing ingrowns. Here, the experts share their favorite products for the job.
Environ Derma-Lac Lotion
From $69 at The Skin Savant
This is Peterson’s all-time favorite product for treating ingrown hairs. “This lotion gently exfoliates the skin and has multi-purpose uses, including the prevention and treatment of ingrown hairs,” Peterson says.
C & the Moon Malibu Made Body Scrub
$64 at Violet Grey
For a body exfoliator, Peterson loves this brown sugar scrub made with coconut, sweet almond, jojoba seed and castor oils that will leave skin soft and moisturized.
PCA Skin BPO 5% Cleanser
$30 at Dermstore
An exfoliating cleanser recommended by Robinson, this contains benzoyl peroxide to help keep pores and hair follicles clear, thus preventing ingrown hairs.
Topicals High Roller Ingrown Hair Tonic With AHA and BHA
$26 at Sephora
Robinson likes this exfoliating serum for treating ingrown hairs and razor burn. Salicylic and glycolic acid help prevent bumps, and zinc PCA soothes irritated skin. It also has a convenient rollerball applicator that makes it easy to glide the product onto the bikini line, underarms or even your face.
Skinbetter AlphaRet Overnight Cream
$130 at Skinbetter
This retinoid face cream that Robinson loves delivers the anti-aging benefits of retinol along with the added benefit of helping prevent ingrown hairs. It even contains lactic acid (an AHA) to prevent pores and hair follicles from becoming clogged.
Fur Ingrown Eliminator Serum
$36 at Dermstore
With witch hazel, willow bark extract and lactic acid, this serum spray soothes bump- and ingrown-prone skin and is gentle enough to use on the face and bikini area alike.
Flamingo Ingrown Spot Treatment
$10 at Flamingo
For a targeted treatment, this gel contains lactic acid, willow bark and several fruit extracts to exfoliate and clear up dead skin cells and free your ingrown hairs.
Boscia Papaya and Pomegranate Enzyme Exfoliating Body Cleanser
$39 at Ulta
This cleansing gel uses mandelic and lactic acids, along with fruit enzymes from papaya and pomegranate, to gently remove dead skin cells in the shower. In addition to helping keep ingrown hairs at bay, the acid-powered formula can also help treat hyperpigmentation.