How to Identify, Treat, and Prevent Infected Ingrown Hairs

Medically reviewed by Xixi Luo, MD on March 24, 2017Written by Kristeen Cherney

Overview

An infected ingrown hair is the result of a grown-out hair that has curled back into the skin and become infected. Recurrent cases are sometimes called folliculitis.

Normally, new hair grows straight out of your hair follicles. These follicles are located within the skin. As the hair matures, it exits the skin’s surface and continues to grow. But sometimes, the hair grows crooked or curls back under before it has a chance to exit the skin. This is called an ingrown hair.

Ingrown hairs are common and can generally be treated at home, even if the affected area becomes infected. Complications aren’t likely unless the infection and ingrown hair are left untreated.

Keep reading to learn what the symptoms are and how to correct the hair growth, as well as tips for preventing future cases of ingrown hair.

Causes of an infected ingrown hair

Some ingrown hairs occur when there are too many dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. These cells can inadvertently clog up hair follicles.

Ingrown hairs are most common in areas of hair removal, such as the face, legs, armpits, and pubic region. They also occur more often in men who shave their beards. Shaving and waxing creates sharper hairs that tend to get trapped in the skin.

You may also be at an increased risk for ingrown hairs and related infections if your hair is naturally coarse or curly. These hair types are more likely to curl back into the skin when growing out after hair removal.

How to identify infected ingrown hair

Oftentimes, an infection of an ingrown hair can start off as a red bump. As the infection progresses, you may see pus and the bump may grow larger.

The area around the infected ingrown hair may also:

  • appear red and irritated
  • swell
  • itch
  • feel warm to the touch

Keep reading: How can I get rid of razor bumps on my legs? »

Ingrown hair infection: Pictures

Infected ingrown hair treatment

If your infection is mild or infrequent, you may be able to use home remedies. These include:

  • washing and lightly scrubbing the area to encourage the hair to loosen from the follicle and exit the skin
  • applying tea tree oil to alleviate the infection and prevent it from getting worse
  • using oatmeal-based lotions to soothe irritated skin
  • using over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to relieve itching

If your infection doesn’t improve with home treatment, see your doctor. They can prescribe medication to treat the infection and coax the hair out. For example, prescription steroid creams can reduce inflammation, and prescription-strength antibiotic creams can treat the infection.

If you chronically develop infected ingrown hairs, your doctor may suggest medications that prevent ingrowns in the first place. Retinoid creams are effective in removing dead skill cells that may contribute to ingrown hairs. They can also help reduce scars from former infections.

Your doctor may prescribe oral steroids and antibiotics if the infection has a risk of spreading to the blood and internal organs.

Learn more: Everything you need to know about tea tree oil »

Ingrown hair and staph infection: Is there a link?

Staphylococcus (staph) infections can occur with an ingrown hair. Although staph is a normal bacterium in your skin flora, it can’t cause an infection unless it enters a break in the skin. But not every wound associated with an ingrown hair will turn into a staph infection.

If you have a large red bump that continues to increase in size and discomfort, see your doctor. They can determine whether conservative or more aggressive management is appropriate. Staph infections are treated with antibiotics to prevent other serious complications, such as blood infection.

Learn more: Staph infection »

Infected ingrown hair removal

Ingrown hairs typically resolve on their own without removal.

Sometimes an ingrown hair may be removed with sterilized tweezers or needles — but only if the hair is near the skin’s surface. Digging for the hair only increases the risk of infection.

Trying to remove an ingrown hair is especially risky when it’s infected because you can spread the infection. Picking or popping an infected ingrown hair also increases your risk of complications.

Instead, gently scrub the area with warm water and soap. This can help ease the ingrown hair out of the skin on its own.

Learn more: How to handle: Ingrown hair on the legs »

Other possible complications

Infected ingrown hairs can lead to the following complications:

  • razor bumps
  • hyperpigmentation
  • permanent scarring
  • hair loss
  • hair follicle destruction

Most of these complications can be avoided by taking measures to prevent ingrown hairs and treating any infections promptly.

When to see your doctor

Mild ingrown hair infections often clear up on their own without treatment. However, you should see your doctor if the infection worsens or doesn’t improve within a few days.

Your doctor can identify an infected ingrown hair through a physical examination of the skin. No other tests are typically needed for diagnosis.

Antibiotics may be prescribed in severe cases. These are used if you have large, pus-filled, or open sores. Your doctor can also provide tips for lifestyle changes that may reduce your likelihood of ingrown hairs.

Outlook

Picking or popping the ingrown hair will only increase your risk of infection because it exposes the follicle to bacteria. Picking the skin can also cause scars.

Although ingrown hairs can be uncomfortable at times, they’re best left alone. Many cases clear up on their own without any interference. Mild cases of infection may clear up on their own after a few days, but severe cases can take a couple of weeks. After the infection has cleared, you may have a scar or discolored skin that can last for several months.

Learn more: Treating and preventing ingrown pubic hairs »

How to prevent future infection or ingrown hairs

Preventing ingrown hairs in the first place can decrease your risk of related infections. When shaving or waxing, try the following tips:

  • Wash the skin first to help prevent bacteria from entering the skin.
  • Change your razor frequently.
  • Avoid dull blades.
  • Remove hair in the direction of growth.
  • Use shave gel and warm water.
  • Apply lotion to the area afterward.

If you continue having infected ingrown hairs in the same area, such as the face, you might consider ceasing at-home hair removal. Talk to your doctor about whether you may benefit from laser skin treatments and other long-term hair removal methods.

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