The downside to trying to remove body hair is that sometimes you end up with little pimple-like bumps known as ingrown hairs.
An ingrown hair happens when a hair starts to curl back into the skin as it grows — and, yep, it’s just as painful as it sounds.
Ingrown hairs can show up anywhere (lucky us!), but they’re more annoying in some spots than others, one of those being your underarm area.
When you think about it, your armpit is the perfect environment for an ingrown hair: skin rubs against clothing most of the day and things tend to get pretty sweaty.
Since no one really wants to deal with ingrown hairs, read on to find out if that’s definitely what you’re dealing with, how to get rid of it, and how to prevent ingrown armpit hairs from happening again.
Ingrown hairs might look like pimples, but that’s basically where the similarities end.
Look out for these symptoms to be sure you have an ingrown hair and not something else:
- It will look like a red or purple solid bump. It may have a pus-filled head similar to a pimple.
- You might notice a tiny dark dot in the center of the bump, which is the hair trapped under the skin.
- It’s itchy.
- It’s painful to the touch or just in general, especially if clothing rubs against it.
- The skin around it is irritated and swollen.
- You notice hyperpigmentation around the bump (aka darkened patches of skin around the ingrown hair).
While ingrown hairs often go away on their own, it can take days or even weeks for that to happen.
If it’s painful and uncomfortable, then you have options on how to soothe the area and make it hurt less. Usually, you can do this at home on your own.
What you don’t want to do is pick at the ingrown hair — squeezing the bump like a pimple or trying to pluck a stubborn or deep ingrown hair can leave scarring, irritation, and even lead to an infection.
Apply a steroid cream
Sometimes an ingrown hair can get really irritated, red, and swollen. If this happens, try applying a topical steroid treatment to soothe the inflammation.
Soothe with a warm compress
In this case, heat is your friend. It will soothe the inflammation and take away some of the discomfort, but it also softens the skin, which leads us to our next tip…
Get rid of that dead skin
Exfoliating gets rid of dead skin cells, and ingrown hairs are often trapped under dead skin.
Gently exfoliating the area may break off the dead skin trapping the hair, allowing it to heal on its own. Be sure to use that warm compress before doing this.
First, wash and moisturize so that the skin is clean and prepped. Then take an old, soft, clean toothbrush (or a washcloth or other abrasive item), and gently scrub the skin around the bump and the bump itself in a circular motion. This should release the hair.
Apply benzoyl peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide is often used to treat acne, but research has found it can also reduce the discomfort of an ingrown hair and get rid of any pus trapped in there as well.
Take a hair removal break
Once an ingrown hair appears, stop shaving, waxing, or plucking your hair in that area (in this case, your armpits).
Let the ingrown hair go away and heal before you start shaving again, since that will irritate what’s already really sensitive and possibly even lead to an infection.
Apply retinoid creams
Over-the-counter retinoid creams can not only help speed up the healing process, but can also clear up that dark skin that may have formed due to the ingrown hair.
Look for products that contain glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and adapalene.
Adapalene, which is derived from vitamin A, has been shown as an effective treatment for reducing ingrown hairs and preventing infection.
For a stronger retinoid, you may need to get a prescription from your doctor.
Pluck it out yourself
Pulling out an ingrown hair is a tricky process and not recommended by healthcare pros. If you must, must, must do it, follow these steps:
- Wash your hands.
- Grab a pair of sharp tweezers and clean with soap and warm water.
- Cleanse the ingrown hair with soap and warm water, then gently exfoliate.
- Apply a warm compress to the ingrown hair for a minute or so to open up the hair follicle.
- Use the tweezers to gently remove the hair.
- If you’re unable to remove the hair on the first try, leave it alone. Repeated attempts could inflame the skin and make things worse.
- Wash the area again or apply a thin layer of antibacterial ointment, like Neosporin.
A dermatologist can safely disinfect the area before inserting a sterile needle to free the strand from the skin.
If you suspect that your ingrown hair has become infected, you may want to contact a dermatologist. An infected ingrown hair will be extremely red, painful, swollen, and filled with pus. You may need an antibiotic to get rid of it.
If you get ingrown hairs very often (like every time you shave, even when being careful), you may want to talk to a doctor about it. They might have some suggestions on how to prevent them from happening.
If your ingrown hair is turning into an ingrown hair cyst, it might become much larger over time, and more red and swollen. If this happens, your best bet is to see a dermatologist for treatment options.
Sick of ingrown pit hairs? We get it. Here are some ideas for preventing them from popping up (or curling in).
Toss dull razors
Old, dull razor blades don’t work as well and can easily lead to ingrown hairs (or other irritations).
Switching out your razor blade for a new sharp one every few shaves is a good practice.
Switch to a single-blade razor
A single-blade razor has been said to be the best to prevent ingrown hairs. You can also try an electric razor if you feel more comfortable with that option.
Always exfoliate before shaving or waxing
Again, exfoliating gets rid of dead skin cells, making it harder for hairs to get trapped under the skin.
Exfoliate before you shave so that all the dead skin is removed. Do this gently so that you don’t irritate the skin right before shaving.
Be super careful when shaving
Your armpit area is small, so it’s easy to shave the area really quickly. Try to be more careful, though: shave in the direction the hairs are going, opt for slow and short strokes, and thoroughly rinse the blade after each stroke.
Moisturize after shaving
Moisturizing helps eliminate and prevent dead skin cells from building up.
After you’re done removing the hair, apply a soothing moisturizer (one that’s made with vitamin E or tea tree oil is great) to calm the area and hydrate the skin.
Opt for laser hair removal in the future
Getting ingrown hairs all the time? You may need to ditch the razor or wax strips completely.
Laser hair removal doesn’t cause ingrown hairs and is a more permanent solution to hair removal, although it can be a bigger expense.
Go for creams instead
An alternative to laser hair removal is a chemical hair remover such as Nair or a similar cream. These can be irritating, especially on sensitive skin, so be sure to do a quick patch test before using it (try the back of your wrist).
Believe it or not, that bump in your armpit might not be an ingrown hair.
Bumps in your underarm area could also be razor burn, which typically looks almost more like a rash and is a lot of little bumps instead of one.
Boils can also resemble an ingrown hair. Boils are caused by bacteria in the hair follicle, but can be treated similarly to an ingrown hair.
If the bump looks and feels more like a lump than something small, it could be something else completely. Armpit lumps can have many different causes, such as:
- bacterial infections
- lipomas (a benign fat tissue growth)
- allergic reactions
- fungal infections
- breast cancer
Ingrown hairs can happen anywhere on your body where you shave or wax, and they’re common in your armpits.
Ingrown hairs look like small red bumps that feel uncomfortable and irritated. While they’ll usually disappear on their own after a while, you can help the healing process along by exfoliating, applying a cream, soothing the area, and avoiding hair removal until it goes away.
You should see a doctor if your ingrown hair doesn’t go away and becomes worse, or if it becomes extremely painful.
You can avoid ingrown hairs by exfoliating and moisturizing, being extra careful when shaving, or opting for an alternate hair removal method.