What is an ingrown hair cyst?

An ingrown hair cyst refers to an ingrown hair that turns into a cyst — a large bump that extends between the skin’s surface and deep underneath it. The appearance is a cross between a regular ingrown hair and an acne cyst, though this is a different condition.

These types of cysts are common among people who shave, wax, or use other methods to remove their hair. Although you may be eager to get rid of these cysts simply because of their appearance, it’s also important to watch for signs of an infection.

Keep reading to learn what causes these cysts to form, plus how to treat them and prevent them from returning.

What does an ingrown hair cyst look like?

Ingrown hair cyst

Tips for identification

As the name suggests, ingrown hair cysts start off as ingrown hairs. At first, you might notice a small pimple-like bump that has a hair at its surface. It may also be red in color. Over time — if the ingrown hair doesn’t go away — the small bump can transform into a much larger one. The resulting cyst can be red, white, or yellow in color. It may also be painful to the touch.

Although ingrown hair cysts can occur anywhere on your body, they’re more likely to develop in areas that are prone to ingrown hairs.

This includes your:

  • armpits
  • face
  • head
  • neck
  • legs
  • pubic region

An ingrown hair cyst is not the same thing as cystic acne, though the two conditions can look similar. An infected ingrown hair cyst starts off as a regular ingrown hair, and acne cysts are caused by a combination of oil and dead skill cells that accumulate deep under the hair follicle.

Cystic acne can be widespread in one area, such as your back or face. Ingrown hair cysts, on the other hand, are smaller in number and contained — you may just have one. And unlike pimples, ingrown hair cysts won’t have a head.

What causes an ingrown hair cyst to form?

Improper hair removal techniques may lead to ingrown hair cysts. Whether you shave, wax, or tweeze, removing hair isn’t always clear-cut. The process itself can cause swelling, which may irritate your skin and lead to pimples and resulting cysts.

Removing a hair can also cause the new hair that grows in its place to grow incorrectly. The new hair may grow sideways and eventually curl back down. When this happens, the pore can close over the hair so it becomes stuck, or ingrown. The skin responds by becoming inflamed, treating the curled-back hair as a foreign object.

According to the Mayo Clinic, ingrown hairs alone are most common in African-American men who shave. You may also be at greater risk for developing these types of cysts if you have naturally curly hair.

What treatment options are available?

The primary goal of treatment is to reduce surrounding inflammation and decrease your risk for infection.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications containing benzoyl peroxide, such as Neutrogena On-the-Spot, or retinoids, such as Differin Gel, can reduce inflammation and decrease the size of the cyst. Prescription acne medications might be needed if OTC methods don’t work. For example, your healthcare professional may prescribe a steroid cream to help reduce redness and pain around the cyst.

You should never pop an ingrown hair cyst, as this can increase your risk for infection and scarring. You also shouldn’t try to lift the hair out with tweezers like you might with a normal ingrown hair. At this point, the hair is embedded far too deep underneath the cyst for you to pull out.

Instead, you should encourage the cyst to go down and the hair to straighten upward by gently scrubbing the cysts with a warm cloth a couple of times a day.

If you do develop an infection, your healthcare professional will prescribe either topical or oral antibiotics. This will help reduce inflammation and pain while also preventing the infection from spreading and getting worse.

When to see a healthcare professional

In most cases, you won’t need to see your healthcare professional for these types of cysts. OTC creams can usually help coax the hair out.

If the cyst becomes extremely bothersome — or if the bump isn’t fading — you should see your healthcare professional or dermatologist. They can drain the cyst and remove the ingrown hair.

You should also see a healthcare professional if you suspect an infection. Signs of infection include:

  • pus or oozing from the cyst
  • increased redness
  • itchiness
  • increased pain

What’s the outlook?

Ingrown hair cysts, like acne lesions, can take several days or even weeks to fully clear up on their own. Timely treatment can help get rid of ingrown hair cysts and prevent them from returning.

But if ingrown hairs continue to form, you should see your healthcare professional to rule out any underlying causes. They may also recommend more permanent hair removal methods, such as laser hair removal, to help reduce your risk for future cysts.

Tips for prevention

According to the Mayo Clinic, the only way you can prevent ingrown hairs from occurring at all is to refrain from hair removal altogether.

If you do decide to remove the hair, practice smart hair removal to reduce your risk of ingrown hairs.

Remember to:

  • Use only sharp razors. Dull razors may not cut hair straight, which can cause them to curl back into the skin.
  • Shave with warm, not hot, water.
  • Replace your razor every six weeks.
  • Always use shaving cream or gel.
  • Tweeze in the direction of hair growth only.
  • Avoid over-waxing. You’ll need to let your hair grow out to be as long as an uncooked grain of rice before you can safely remove it again.
  • Follow up every hair removal by applying body lotion.

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