What’s more annoying than an ingrown hair? The scar or mark that lingers long after the ingrown has gone away. If you use temporary hair-removal methods, such as shaving or waxing, you might frequently experience these uncomfortable bumps and, as a result of said bumps, unwanted dark spots. And if you would rather not give up shaving for the sake of smooth, even skin, there are ways you can continue with your hair removal and avoid ingrown hair scars. — but you have to first understand what ingrowns are and why they happen.
Before diving into how to get rid of ingrown hair scars, it helps to understand what causes the skin woe in the first place. Dr. Rachel Maiman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical, explains that ingrown hairs occur when the hair fails to grow along its normal course through the follicular opening and then out and above the skin’s surface. These pesky bumps can pop up anywhere that you shave but are more common in curly hair or areas where hair is curly and coarse, which can be the pubic area, bikini line, and armpits for some people.
“When hair grows back into or within the skin, the body responds to it as if it were a foreign object,” Maiman explains. “This triggers an inflammatory reaction that produces symptoms ranging from pain to itching, redness, and/or swelling. In most cases, the inflammation produces a solid or pus-filled bump that can be both seen and felt.” What’s more, the inflammation often leaves behind post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (dark spots) — and if the flare-up is significant enough, true scarring can occur.
So what can you do about it? Start with resolving your current ingrown hairs, followed by treating existing scars and hyperpigmentation, and finally, taking the proper steps to prevent the ingrown hairs and resulting marks in the future. Keep reading for an expert guide on how to get rid of ingrown hair scars for good.
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1. Heal Any Existing Ingrown Hairs
The first step in getting rid of the scars is to properly treat the ingrowns (key word: properly). “When the condition is not treated and becomes chronic, scarring and hyperpigmentation may occur,” explains Dr. Hope Mitchell, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Mitchell Dermatology. She says scratching or picking could lead to secondary bacterial infections and leave discoloration or hyperpigmentation that may take many months to resolve, so hands off. You’ll also want to lay off the hair removal while the ingrown hairs heal, adds Maiman, so avoid shaving, tweezing, and waxing the area.
If you’re experiencing any redness and pain, Dr. Elyse Love, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, suggests relieving it with warm compresses, which can also help bring the hairs to the surface. Additionally, Maiman suggests using an over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream as a spot treatment to reduce the inflammation. But if an ingrown hair is really causing significant pain and irritation, schedule a visit with your dermatologist for a consultation.
2. Exfoliate The Area
If you’re not already exfoliating as part of your regular skin care routine, here’s why you’ll want to start ASAP. As Maiman explains, some ingrown hairs occur because the follicular opening is physically blocked, resulting in the follicle growing completely underneath the skin. To remove the pore-clogging dead skin cells and excess oil on the surface and also release the ingrown hairs underneath, Mitchell suggests washing the area with a mild exfoliating cleanser along with warm water a few times weekly (Maiman says very gentle exfoliation with a washcloth would work, too).
Once the ingrown hair is resolved, you’ll still want to continue exfoliating to stop new ones from popping up. For prevention, Maiman recommends exfoliating with a product that contains ingredients to speed up cellular turnover and reduce the likelihood that the pores become clogged with dead skin cells and debris, such as alpha-hydroxy acids (for instance, glycolic acid) and beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid).
Not only is exfoliation key for treating and preventing the actual ingrown hairs, but it can also work to improve the scars left behind. Love says dark spots from ingrowns will fade with time, but the process can be sped up with the use of alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids as well as in-office chemical peels. Mitchell explains that chemical peels (which use exfoliating ingredients at higher concentrations) work to remove the dead skin layers and reveal a healthier, smoother, more even skin tone.
3. Fade Dark Spots With Specific Ingredients
Fortunately, the post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation left from an ingrown hair will spontaneously resolve without any treatment, Maiman says. Unfortunately, it can take several months to a year to do so. Wish you could make it fade faster? If the scar you’re experiencing is more so discoloration than an actual scar, Maiman says it can be treated with certain skin care products and ingredients.
As mentioned before, Love recommends alpha-hydroxy acids (to exfoliate and lighten dark spots) and also suggests trying prescription hydroquinone (to treat hyperpigmentation). Mitchell also recommends vitamin C, which brightens the skin and improves and prevents the appearance of pigmentation. Other ingredients to seek out in your routine, according to Maiman, are retinol, niacinamide, and kojic acid, which all brighten, improve dark spots and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and even out the skin tone.
4. Take Caution With At-Home Hair Removal
Ingrowns are sometimes referred to as razor bumps for a reason: Shaving incorrectly or haphazardly can leave you with some pretty painful irritation and ingrown bumps. “Education about how to shave, frequency of shaving, and minimizing irritation is critical to reducing flares of this condition,” Mitchell says. First order of business: choosing the right products and tools. “Single blade razors tend to be best because they allow even shaving along the skin surface,” Love explains. “A high-quality shaving cream will protect the underlying skin and provide a glide base to help achieve a smooth shave.” Maiman also stresses the importance of lubricating shaving cream or gel, as this reduces micro-injuries to the skin that can increase the risk of ingrowns and inflammation.
After you have the right supplies, focus on your shaving technique. Apply your cream or gel, then begin shaving in the direction of the hair growth, Mitchell says. It might take a little longer to regularly rinse your razor, but this is not a step you want to skip. “Be sure to clean the blade after every stroke to ensure that each stroke is maximally effective,” Maiman explains. “The reason for this is that it will prevent the need to pass over the hair more than once, as each pass increases the risk of ingrowns further.” Once you’ve finished your shave session, don’t wait too long for the next one. “It sounds counterintuitive, but shaving more often helps to prevent ingrown hairs,” Love says. “This prevents the hair from growing long enough to curl back into the skin.”
If waxing is your hair removal or choice, Love also recommends using a gentle exfoliant a few times a week to prevent the buildup of dead skin cells. And just like shaving, Love says to choose shorter intervals between waxing to prevent the hair from growing long enough to curl into the skin, which is particularly important for those with curly hair.
5. Try In-Office Treatments
According to Maiman, true scarring (which can present as hypertrophic, keloid, or atrophic scars) generally requires in-office treatments for noticeable improvement, and the right treatment is determined by the type of scar. Maiman breaks it down: Keloid and hypertrophic scars can be addressed with a few monthly steroid injections or resurfacing lasers, like Fraxel, while atrophic scars, which are notoriously harder to treat, could improve with microneedling plus radiofrequency devices or resurfacing lasers. For hyperpigmentation, you’ve got a lot of options for in-office treatments, from light-based devices, such as intense pulsed light therapy, to resurfacing lasers.
Speaking of lasers, you might also consider laser hair removal as a long-term solution for your ingrown hair scars. Mitchell says this will reduce hair growth, and as a result, minimize shaving and subsequent bumps. According to Christian Karavolas, laser hair removal expert and founder of Romeo & Juliette Laser Hair Removal, targeted spot laser treatments could improve ingrown hairs as well. “The lasers used are the same for hair removal but with different output levels,” Karavolas explains. “By targeting just the ingrown with high output, one can eliminate it permanently without damaging surrounding tissue.”
If you’ve tried all the over-the-counter products and made the suggested changes to your shave routine but aren’t seeing an improvement in your ingrown hair scars, consult a professional. “If the condition persists, I recommend scheduling an appointment with a dermatologist for treatment options,” Mitchell says. After all, just because ingrown hairs are common, doesn’t mean you have to put up with them if you don’t want to.
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Dr. Elyse Love, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in NYC
Christian Karavolas, laser hair removal expert and founder of Romeo & Juliette Laser Hair Removal