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How to Prevent Ingrown Hairs, According to Dermatologists

It’s summer, which means at some point in the next two months, you’ll be searching, “how to prevent ingrown hairs.” We’ve got you covered.

It’s summer, which means your not-so-good friend Ms. Ingrown-Hair is determined to make a pit stop—perhaps even literally—on your body. Of course, we deal with ingrown hairs throughout the year, but with exposed skin comes more shaving and waxing and, therefore, an increased likelihood of dealing with those pesky, painful bumps. With the help of dermatologists, we’re giving you the lowdown on why ingrown hairs form and teaching you how to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

What Causes Ingrown Hairs?

If it seems like, without fail, you shave or wax and then are greeted by a row of angry bumps in the days that follow, you’re not alone.

“Ingrown hairs are caused by a blockage of the opening of the hair follicle, or by the growth of a hair into the side of the follicle, causing inflammation and coiling of the hairs,” explains  Anna Guanche, a board-certified dermatologist at the Bella Skin Institute. “When you shave or wax you pull and cut the hairs, and when they regrow they sometimes grow into the side of the hair follicle instead of straight through the opening of the follicle.”

When left alone, the natural hair growth cycle causes very few ingrown hairs, notes Heather Rogers, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder Restore Healing Balm. That’s why you don’t get them very often on your scalp or arms. The trouble starts, then, once we start removing unwanted hair. But what, exactly, causes the bumps?

“Shaving can irritate the skin, causing razor bumps that may block the follicle openings. When you wax, hairs are pulled out by the root,” Dr. Rogers explains. “This can damage the hair follicle, making it more difficult for the hairs to grow straight. Also, the new hair made by the bulb after waxing often is finer and lacks to rigidity to push through the pore onto the surface of the skin.”

Also note that if you have naturally curly hair, you’re more likely to deal with bumps. This is because the hair can sometimes wind back around and down into the skin even after it’s made an escape!

Preventing Ingrown Hairs When Shaving & Waxing

Knowing how ingrown hairs are formed is about a quarter of the battle. You’ll need to employ a handful of tricks to keep them at bay.

When shaving, Guanche says it’s best to shave at the end of your shower.

“This hydrates the cuticle of the hair shaft and allows for the hair to be transacted easily without pulling or trauma on the surrounding skin, which causes redness and inflammation,” she explains. “Shaving cream helps lift the hairs from the skin’s surface so that only the hair is cut and not the skin surface.”

We recommend trying something like Skinfood’s Intensive Shea Butter Cream in Shower when shaving.

Additionally, make sure you use a sharp, fresh razor so your skin won’t be scratched by a damaged blade and so the hair is cut cleanly and bluntly. Don’t apply too much pressure (it’s better to shave lightly several times than pressing hard), shave against the grain for a cleaner cut, and apply a moisturizer after stepping out of the shower.

Finally, and this may be counterintuitive — you shouldn’t exfoliate before shaving or waxing. In fact, Rogers advises against exfoliating within three days of waxing and shaving because “you want a nice layer of dead skin to protect your underlying living skin.”

Only after you’ve finished shaving or waxing should you exfoliate. There are physical exfoliators you can use, as well as chemical exfoliators (typically in pad form) that specifically assist in preventing ingrown hairs. Products containing tea tree oil are also popular, as this ingredient soothes the skin and helps it recover without developing bumps.

When waxing, apply a soothing balm to the skin immediately afterward to protect it from irritation. This also helps it heal more quickly if, by chance, some living skin came off with the unwanted hair.

“It’s also important to stop any topical creams containing retinol or prescription tretinoin,” adds Kenneth Howe, a board-certified dermatologist for New York City’s Wexler Dermatology. “These medications thin the outer layer of dead skin cells, leaving the skin more vulnerable to inadvertent exfoliation or tearing during waxing.”

On that note, Howe said that people taking oral retinoids, such as Accutane (also known as isotretinoin), should avoid waxing altogether since it can temporarily make the skin more fragile, to the point that skin can tear when waxed. Just stick to good old shaving!

Treating Ingrown Hairs

If you do get an ingrown hair, our best advice is to not pick at it. Instead, use a chemical or physical exfoliator daily to help remove some of the skin that’s causing the blockage. To help expedite the process, you can also apply a warm, steamy cloth over the affected area.

If you notice a loop of hair at the surface, you can use sterilized tweezers to gently pull the trapped hair out, but don’t dig around for it. Follow up with rubbing alcohol to help prevent any infection.

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