Picking at ingrown hairs can damage the skin and cause ingrown hair scars or hyperpigmentation. But, preventing ingrown hairs in the first place is the best way to avoid lingering spots.
Ingrown hair scars often look like raised, red, or dark brown bumps. While not as likely, it’s also possible to get keloid scarring, which is when scar tissue keeps growing to form smooth, raised nodules.
The root — er, follicle — of these scars is ingrown hairs. These hairs curve and grow back into the skin after you shave, wax, or tweeze. The result is painful, annoying, and begging to be picked at bumps. Unfortunately, picking and tweezing an ingrown hair increases your risk of infection and scarring if you damage the skin.
But scarring from ingrown hairs isn’t super common. It’s more likely the discoloration you have after picking at an ingrown hair is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. These areas look like brown or red patches where the skin has created more melanin (aka skin pigment) as a reaction to skin injury.
If you’re trying to fade ingrown hair scars or pigment changes, you have some options. But, it’s also really important to understand how to treat existing ingrown hairs in a way that prevents future scarring.
We spoke to a few dermatologists to get their skinput *badum, tsshh* on all things ingrown hair scar care.
Before trying to fade ingrown hair scars, you’ll want to take care of any pesky ingrown hairs. Folks with darker skin tones are more likely to deal with ingrown hairs due to thicker, sometimes curly hairs.
It’s especially common for ingrown hairs to occur after shaving the beard area. But anyone shaving their face, pubic area, legs, neck, and armpits can experience ingrown hairs.
Here are dermatologist-recommended treatments to resolve ingrown hairs, treat the area to reduce scarring, and fade scars that stick around.
Use a warm compress
First, let’s get to the root — er, follicle — of your scars: ingrown hairs. Ingrown hairs are hairs that curve and grow back into the skin, typically after you shave, wax, or tweeze. This often creates a bump that is painful, annoying, and begging to be picked at in the pubic area, face, neck, legs, and armpits.
If you notice the ingrown hair area is swollen, pus-filled, warm, and painful, you probably have an infected ingrown hair. Definitely don’t pick or dig out that ingrown hair. This will only make an infection worse and increase your risk of scarring.
“Use a warm wet compress on the area to open the pore and encourage healing by having the hair surface on its own,” says Dr. Reid Maclellan, founder and CEO of skin care telehealth company Cortina and adjunct professor of plastic surgery at Harvard University.
If an infected ingrown hair persists…
It may also help to apply an antibacterial cream to help heal the infected area and keep the skin moist to avoid a scab over the ingrown hair. Always do a patch test before trying a new topical cream. You may also want to avoid Neosporin. Its active ingredient, neomycin, is a common contact allergen that may cause additional redness and inflammation from an allergic reaction.
Chat with your dermatologist or doctor for cream recommendations if the infection does not go away. They may prescribe you a topical antibiotic if needed.
Exfoliate the area
Maclellan notes that gentle exfoliation of the area may help get rid of the dead skin cells blocking the pores. This offers a good way to get rid of the ingrown hair with the lowest chance of scarring.
Just make sure to opt for a gentle chemical exfoliant rather than using a physical exfoliant (like a brush or gritty scrub).
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like lactic acid and glycolic acid are mild acids that can help chemically exfoliate the skin, says Dr. Cory Gaskins, a dermatologist and medical advisor at BestBotox.ca. Plus, they can help fade scarring.
Salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), can also help remove dead skin cells, adds Dr. Anna Chacon, a board-certified dermatologist and medical reviewer at MyPsoriasisTeam.
Apply silicone gel sheets
“Silicone gel sheets are widely used to manage scarring,” explains Chacon. She adds that silicone helps keep the skin moisturized, “which is crucial for scar management.” As a bonus, the patches cover the damaged skin to help you resist the urge to pick.
Some scar treatments will also combine silicone gel with other ingredients. Vitamin C has a lot of uses in skin care and can help brighten skin, which may help fade scarring and hyperpigmentation caused by ingrown hairs. A small 2013 study found that silicone gel containing vitamin C helped improve fine facial scars.
Onion extract gel is also an ingredient found in over-the-counter scar treatments. A 2021 review found it’s no more effective than any other options, like acids or retinoids, but may be an ideal scar treatment when combined with silicone sheets. Still, we need more research to know for sure.
Use retinoid creams
Retinoids are products derived from vitamin A that include the anti-aging favorite retinol. But the same benefits retinoids apply to wrinkles can also help scars.
“[Retinoids] encourage skin cell turnover and can help to diminish the appearance of scars,” says Gaskins. These are pretty easy to find over the counter, but your derm can provide recommendations and possibly a prescription option.
No ingrown hairs mean no chance for ingrown hair scars. Here are the best ways to prevent ingrown hairs in the first place.
Do NOT pick
“The most important thing to remember to avoid ingrown hair scars is to never pick at an ingrown hair,” explains Maclellan.
That means hands off, tweezers away, and do NOT try to shave over your ingrown hair.
Adjust your shaving routine
How you shave can also increase your risk of developing ingrown hairs, adds Dr. Adam Mamelak, an Austin, Texas-based dermatologist. “When you shave against the grain of the hair, it can result in a hair that is cut below the surface of the skin, which is more likely to grow inward.”
Shaving with the grain, and using a shaving gel or cream, can help you avoid irritating the skin and developing ingrown hairs.
Here’s how to create an American Academy of Dermatology-backed shaving routine and avoid ingrown hairs:
- Gently cleanse. Wash your skin with a gentle, noncomedogenic cleanser to create a clean surface.
- Exfoliate. Exfoliating areas with coarse hair can also help give you a smooth surface to shave. Stick with a gentle chemical exfoliate like lactic, glycolic, or salicylic acid.
- Shave warm, moist skin. Shave when your skin is warm and moist to reduce the risk of hairs curving after shaving. Try waiting to shave at the end of your shower, or apply a warm compress to the beard area for a few minutes.
- Apply moisturizing shaving cream. Prior to shaving, apply a shaving cream that also moisturizes the skin. Let it sit for several minutes to up your skin’s moisture. Make sure it is wet before shaving, and apply more if it dries.
- Use a sharp, clean razor. Shave with a clean, sharp razor to help you avoid nicks and cuts. Replace the blades every 5-7 shaves, or try an electric razor. Store your razor in a dry place (not the shower or sink area) to avoid more bacteria growth.
- Shave gently. Shave with the grain using light pressure and small strokes. Rinse your razor between passes.
- Cool down the skin. Apply a cool compress after shaving to help tighten your pores and soothe the skin.
If you’ve tried and tried, but the at-home options aren’t fading your ingrown hair scars, there are some professional treatments. Still, preventive measures to avoid an infected ingrown hair are your best bet to avoid scarring in the first place.
Chemical peels and topical creams
According to Maclellan, a chemical peel helps remove the top layers of skin and some scar tissue.
“This is a great option for a deeper exfoliation because it penetrates deep into the skin’s layers, and can result in longer-term results with consistent treatments,” Maclellan adds.
Topical creams with azelaic acid, hydroquinone, or kojic acid can also help hyperpigmentation from ingrown hairs.
Laser hair removal
He also recommends laser hair removal for people who deal with ingrown hairs on the regular.
“Shaving is often what causes the skin to get irritated and, in turn, have ingrown hairs. This alternative will reduce hair growth, as well as the sight of scars and hyperpigmentation.” Gaskins adds that laser hair removal can also help stimulate collagen production. This can help boost skin hydration and elasticity.
Ingrown hairs grow into the skin instead of out. Unfortunately, picking at them — which is almost irresistible — can result in ingrown hair scars and hyperpigmentation.
There are several derm-approved options to help reduce the appearance of these scars like exfoliating AHAs, retinoids, and silicone sheets. However, prevention is *key*.
To help prevent ingrown hairs from happening in the first place, make sure to shave with the hair growth, not against, and keep your shaving hygiene on point. But if you do get an ingrown hair, be sure to avoid picking at it and use warm compresses or gentle exfoliation to help the hair naturally come out. More permanent options, like laser hair removal, can also help you avoid shaving altogether if you’re constantly dealing with ingrown hairs.
More questions? Be sure to speak with your derm about what the best options might be for you and your skin.