Ingrown hairs are not usually dangerous, but they can be intensely painful. If an infection is left untreated, it may worsen or travel to the blood.
In this article, we discuss the causes and treatment of ingrown hair cysts, and how people can prevent them developing.
What is an ingrown hair cyst?
Ingrown hairs are not dangerous but they can be painful.
Ingrown hair cysts start as ingrown hairs that develop into fluid-filled lumps. When a cyst develops from an ingrown hair, the area becomes swollen.
A cyst may be hard, soft, large, or smaller than a pea. Some cysts can develop deep under the skin, while others may be near the surface where they can develop a white or yellow head.
Usually, cysts do not hurt unless they become infected. An infected cyst may be red, itchy, and very tender.
Treatment for ingrown hair cysts
When treatment is needed for an ingrown hair cyst, it can be given at home, or it may require a visit to the doctor's room.
Ingrown hair cysts frequently clear up unaided but, to speed healing up, a person can try the following:
- Keep the cyst and the area around it clean at all times.
- Avoid shaving areas around the cyst, as this can introduce bacteria and cause an infection.
- Apply warm compresses to the cyst for 10–15 minutes several times a day. These might bring the cyst closer to the surface, allowing it to drain. If the hair is trapped under the skin, warm compresses may help it grow out.
- Apply an antiseptic solution, such as tea tree oil, to the cyst to prevent infection. Triple antibiotic ointments may also help.
Avoid picking or popping the cyst. Ingrown hair cysts develop from a sac under the skin, which can fill with a thick, yellow substance called keratin. Popping the cyst may release the liquid but will not get rid of the sac, and the cyst may grow back. Popping a cyst can also introduce bacteria to the skin, causing infection or making the cyst worse.
Sometimes, an ingrown hair is visible above the skin before it curls underneath. If this is the case, removing it may speed up healing. People can use clean tweezers to grab the hair and remove it.
They should not try this if the hair is completely under the skin or it is necessary to dig into the skin to remove it. Instead, the hair should be left alone.
Sometimes, a person will need medical treatment for a cyst. They should see a doctor if:
- a cyst does not clear up on its own
- the cyst is very painful, red, or continues to ooze
- a fever develops alongside the cyst
- a foreign object is in the cyst, such as a splinter or piece of glass
- a condition, such as HIV, AIDS, uncontrolled diabetes, or medication has weakened the immune system
- the cyst is very large or is affecting daily life, such as becoming stuck on clothing
A doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear up an underlying infection or may recommend removing the cyst surgically.
Removal of a cyst is usually done at a doctor's office, under local anesthetic. Local anesthetic enables a fast recovery time and allows the individual to remain awake during the procedure.
Causes of an ingrown hair cyst
If a hair gets trapped under the skin before it leaves the follicle, it becomes an ingrown hair.
All hairs grow from a hair follicle, sometimes called a pore. This is a tiny opening in the skin, with a complex underlying structure that nourishes the hair.
Sometimes, an ingrown hair occurs when a hair gets trapped under the skin before it leaves the follicle. At other times, a hair grows out of the follicle but curls back on itself and re-enters the skin.
When hair becomes trapped underneath the skin, the skin can become irritated. It also blocks the hair follicle, trapping various substances in the pore, causing a cyst.
Skin cysts often contain keratin, a protein that keeps skin strong and flexible. But sometimes cysts arise from trapped bacteria or inflammatory response to an infection.
Preventing an ingrown hair cyst
To reduce the risk of cysts from ingrown hair, people can try the following:
- use shaving cream and aftershave to soothe the skin
- shave with a sharp razor only
- moisturize well with a rich lotion when the skin is dry or after shaving
- exfoliate dull, dry skin before shaving
- shave in the direction of hair growth
- do not shave over irritated or red skin
Anyone can develop ingrown hairs. Risk factors for developing ingrown hairs include:
- Hair removal techniques: Shaving, waxing and plucking can irritate the skin. After shaving, the hair that grows back may have a sharper edge, making it easier for it to grow into the skin.
- Very dry skin: Dry and dead skin can accumulate over a hair follicle, trapping the growing hair underneath.
- Pressure or friction: This can be a problem, particularly in an area already vulnerable to ingrown hairs. By irritating the skin, it can make ingrown hairs more likely.
- Having coarse, curly, or thick hair: This type of hair is more likely to curl back under the skin when it exits the hair follicle.
How to identify an ingrown hair cyst
Dry skin may indicate that the problem is not an ingrown hair cyst.
When a lump appears in an area where there is body hair, it is often an ingrown hair cyst.
To identify a cyst, a person should look for a small red bump with a hair in it that slowly grows into a bigger lump. Many ingrown hair cysts develop in areas covered in razor burn.
Some signs that the problem might not be an ingrown hair cyst include:
- A mole that has changed shape, color, or becomes swollen.
- Red or irritated patches on the skin.
- The skin is peeling or has dry patches.
- A skin injury, even a small one from a splinter or minor cut, could mean a skin infection.
- The cyst has no clear borders. Normally, cysts are round lumps, so an unusual-shaped swelling, or one that changes shape, could be something else.
- There are many painful ingrown hairs, which could be due to a bacterial infection in the hair follicles.
- The skin is very dry with many small bumps that can have heads. This could be a condition called keratosis pilaris.
When to see a doctor
It is easy to mistake a harmless cyst for a more serious skin condition. Anyone who has a cyst that does not clear up after a week or two should see their doctor.
Prompt treatment can be lifesaving in the case of skin cancer, serious skin infections, and other dangerous skin problems.
Preventing ingrown hairs is the best way to prevent ingrown hair cysts from developing. However, if cysts do appear, they are usually harmless and often go away on their own.
People who frequently develop cysts, razor burn, or ingrown hairs should discuss with a doctor strategies for reducing the occurrence of these annoying skin conditions.
In most cases, a few changes in a person's skin care routine can significantly reduce the risk of ingrown hairs and the related irritation.