Anyone who’s had a bad hair day knows it sucks when your mane misbehaves. Spare a thought, then, for people whose hair won’t even grow in the right direction.

Here, we’re digging deep to learn how to spot, treat, and avoid dreaded ingrown hairs.

At a glance, here’s the lowdown on ingrown hairs and busting them:

  • Ingrown hairs happen when a hair grows sideways into your skin instead of outward.
  • They’re often caused by blocked or dirty pores and some hair removal methods.
  • An ingrown hair can cause itching, redness or discoloration, and soreness on skin.
  • They’re generally not serious, but ingrowns can sometimes get infected.
  • Exfoliating and shaving with the grain can reduce your chance of ingrown hairs.
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Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United

In most cases, ingrown hairs should eventually correct themselves. The hair will grow so long that it simply pops back up out of the skin and starts growing typically (nice visual).

There are things you can do to speed this process up, though, like regular exfoliation or using tools like tweezers to correct the growth as soon as you notice things going in the wrong direction.

Use water to massage and release an ingrown hair

It’s possible to coax a hair back into its intended direction using warm water and a washcloth. Soak the cloth in the water and hold it against the area of skin surrounding the ingrown hair. This will warm your skin, opening up your pores and follicles.

From there, rub the washcloth against your skin in a gentle circular motion. This can uncurl the hair and direct it away from your skin. If this doesn’t work, you can use a soft toothbrush in place of the washcloth.

Use tweezers on ingrown hair

If any of the ingrown hair pokes up above your skin, you can use tweezers to pull it into the right position. A sterile needle is another possible tool, and might be better suited for thinner hairs that are only slightly above skin level.

Whichever you use, it’s important not to dig into the skin to uncover the hair, since this increases your chance of infection. It’s also best not to pluck the hair out entirely. It’ll only become ingrown again when it comes back. Instead, gently pull the hair into the right position and leave it. This gives your skin and follicle time to heal into the best position.

If you notice some ingrown hairs and are concerned about developing more, changing up your grooming routine can lower your chance.

Shave with the grain

When you shave against the direction your hair is growing, you undoubtedly get closer to the skin. But you also leave hairs with those sharp edges that help them grow inward. Shaving with the grain is easier on your individual hairs and keeps them in alignment.

But no matter which direction you choose to shave, make sure you use a clean, quality razor. Cheap, disposable ones are more likely to scratch and irritate your skin. That makes you more likely to get ingrown hairs, and makes existing ones more uncomfortable.

Exfoliate on the regular

Keeping your pores and follicles clean will go a long way toward reducing the chance of ingrown hairs. Exfoliating two or three times each week with a good chemical scrub clears out all the dirt and dead skins cells building up in your pores. That gives your hairs their best chance of growing as nature intended.

When you exfoliate, use warm water and a soft cloth to rub your skin in a circular motion. This action helps tease out any ingrown hairs and it keeps their path clear.

Consider other hair removal options

If shaving is what tends to give you ingrown hairs, there are other ways to achieve smooth skin. Laser or chemical hair removal can be permanent or semipermanent. There’s also electrolysis, which may also get rid of hairs for good.

But talk with a dermatologist before you go for any of these options. It’s possible they might cause short-term skin irritation, which could feel like the symptoms of ingrown hairs, or worse.

When hair grows, it usually begins as a bulb beneath your skin and goes upward, through its follicle and out of your body. When follicles clog, the growing hair has nowhere to go but sideways into your skin. That’s an ingrown hair.

Dead skin cells are sometimes to blame for clogged follicles, but improper shaving, waxing or plucking are generally the most common root causes. A 2018 study put ingrown hairs as the third most common shaving complication, after cuts and itching.

As we mentioned earlier, if you cut individual hairs too close to the skin, they take on a sharper edge. That lets them push into your skin more easily, despite the follicle trying to guide them outward. Waxing and plucking, meanwhile, leaves follicles prone to distortion.

This can happen anywhere on your body that grows hair, including your:

Should I be worried about ingrown hairs?

The symptoms of ingrown hairs are mostly just annoying, but usually nothing serious.

They include:

  • itchy skin and irritation around the hairs
  • discomfort while wearing close-fitting clothes
  • pimple-like red or discolored bumps

Keep an eye on those pimply bumps. If left for too long, they can potentially grow and fill with pus, eventually becoming ingrown hair cysts. These can get infected, at which point you may need to speak with a medical professional. But in most cases, an ingrown hair will simply release on its own eventually.

Who’s most likely to get an ingrown hair?

People with thick or curly hair tend to be more likely to get ingrowns. These types of hairs are more likely to grow sideways and be more resistant to guidance by the follicle. People who shave more regularly also tend to have a higher chance of getting ingrown hairs.

Someone who has thicker hair and shaves daily, for example, can have a higher chance than someone with thinner, straighter hair who only shaves every few days.

There’s evidence to support the idea that hair follicles sometimes don’t develop properly, making them more likely to repeatedly produce ingrown hairs. But even in extreme cases, this will only affect a few follicles on the body. Hair type and shaving frequency are better indicators.

If an ingrown hair becomes infected, you might need to speak with a dermatologist or medical professional.

Signs of infection include:

  • excessive swelling and redness or discoloration around the ingrown hair
  • pus or liquid discharge coming from the affected area
  • elevated temperature, fever, nausea or chills

If necessary, the issue could be treated with prescribed steroid creams for swelling and irritation, or a course of antibiotics to clear the infection.

You might also want to speak with a medical pro if you keep getting ingrown hairs in the same area of your body. In some cases, recurring ingrowns can be treated by destroying the follicle itself, preventing it from growing any hairs at all.

Ingrown hairs, while annoying, aren’t the end of the world, and usually fix themselves. But if you simply can’t stand that itchy, irritable feeling, there are steps you can take to help yourself.

If you have thick or curly hair in particular, a few simple changes to your shaving or washing routine can put you and your hair in the right direction.