Is It an Acne Pimple or an Ingrown Hair?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

It can be easy to mistake an ingrown hair for a pimple because they may look so similar. Although you may develop a red bump with both, an ingrown hair occurs when the hair curls back into the skin. With a pimple, a pore gets clogged with oil.

Because their causes and treatments are different, it's important to be able to identify them correctly.

This article explains the differences between pimples and ingrown hairs. It also covers the causes, symptoms, and treatments for both.

How to Identify Pimples vs. Ingrown Hairs
Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

What Causes Ingrown Hairs and Pimples?

Pimples and ingrown hairs are caused by different factors. Understanding their causes can help you prevent and treat them appropriately.

How Pimples Develop

A pimple is a skin bump that is often red, swollen, and irritated. A pimple forms when a plug of oil and dead skin cells block the opening of the pore. Bacteria may grow in the blocked pore, causing a pimple to develop.

How Ingrown Hairs Develop

Ingrown hairs develop in the hair follicles, deeper down in the skin compared to pimples. Unlike pimples, ingrown hairs aren't formed by a pore blockage. Instead, it's the hair itself that causes a problem.

With an ingrown hair, the hair grows back into the skin instead of out of the pore. This can lead to redness, swelling, and sometimes pus, which can look a lot like a pimple.

How Do I Know If It's a Pimple or Ingrown Hair?

There are clues to look for that can help you determine whether a breakout is due to acne or ingrown hairs. The location is especially important.

Identifying Ingrown Hairs

You have a chance of developing ingrown hairs in whatever areas you shave, wax, or tweeze. Hair removal can leave hairs with sharp edges. This can make it easier for the hair to curl back into the skin, instead of growing out of the pore. Ingrown hairs are most commonly found on:

  • The upper lip and beard area
  • The scalp
  • The legs
  • The underarms

Just like pimples, ingrown hairs can hurt. You may even be able to see the hair just under the surface of the skin or in the swollen head of the blemish.

Irritated, red, and/or swollen bumps are likely ingrown hairs if these breakouts are only in the areas where you've shaved, tweezed, or waxed.

Identifying Pimples

If you have breakouts where you don't shave, tweeze, or wax, it's likely acne. Pimples are common on the:

  • Back
  • Chest
  • Shoulders
  • Neck
  • Forehead
  • Nose

When checking the blemish, look carefully to make sure you don't see a hair trapped just beneath the surface of the skin. If you don't see a hair and it's not located on an area where you've removed hair, it's likely a pimple.

How Do You Treat an Ingrown Hair?

Some ingrown hairs may heal themselves with time. Treatment options for ingrown hairs may include:

  • Using a face or body scrub to prevent hairs from becoming trapped
  • Using a good shaving cream and shaving in the direction of the hair growth
  • Limiting shaving, waxing, and tweezing

If you have a lot of ingrown hairs, if they are painful, infected, and/or are causing skin darkening known as hyperpigmentation, you may want to reach out to a medical professional. They may offer you prescription medications such as tretinoin or topical antibiotics to help your skin heal.

How to Treat Acne

If your breakouts are minor, over-the-counter acne products containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide may improve blemishes.

Highly irritated or widespread breakouts should be treated by a skin, hair, and nails doctor known as a dermatologist. They may offer you prescription medications depending on your specific needs.

Summary

Ingrown hairs and pimples are caused by different factors. Ingrown hairs usually develop after hair removal, which can leave hair with sharp edges. Hair then curls back into the skin instead of out of the pore. With pimples, oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria build up and block the pore.

Both ingrown hairs and pimples may look like red bumps that are swollen and irritated. To tell the difference, it's best to pay attention to the location of the bump. If it's in an area where you have removed hair and you notice a hair trapped just beneath the skin's surface, it's likely an ingrown hair. If the bump is in an area where you haven't removed hair and you have acne elsewhere, it is likely a pimple.

Treatment for ingrown hairs includes using a scrub to help lift trapped hairs, limiting hair removal methods, and using shaving cream instead of dry shaving. With pimples, using products with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide might help reduce breakouts. If you experience more severe pimple or ingrown hair breakouts, it's best to see a dermatologist.

A Word From Verywell

Ingrown hairs and pimples can look remarkably similar. If you're not sure if you have acne or ingrown hairs, give your healthcare provider a call! Your practitioner will be able to let you know exactly what is going on with your skin and help you create a plan to treat it.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can I do to prevent ingrown hairs?

    Fine-tuning how you shave may help:

    • Use a single-blade razor.
    • Shave after or while showering so the steam can help soften individual hairs.
    • Shave in the direction hair grows.
    • Use an over-the-counter exfoliant such as salicylic acid regularly to get rid of dead skin cells that can clog pores.
  • Are razor bumps the same things as ingrown hairs?

    Razor bumps typically refer to pseudofolliculitis barbae, a condition common among people with curly hair. It occurs when ingrown hairs cause inflammatory lesions that if not treated can cause raised scarring called keloids.

  • Is it okay to pull out ingrown hairs?

    Trying to dig out an ingrown hair or pop a pustule caused by one puts you at risk for infection. Don't shave over the hair until it works itself out. If it doesn't or becomes inflamed, see a dermatologist.

Was this page helpful?
7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Acne.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Ingrown hair.

  3. Merck Manuals. Ingrown beard hairs.

  4. Ogunbiyi A. Pseudofolliculitis barbae; current treatment optionsClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2019;12:241-247. doi:10.2147/CCID.S149250

  5. Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, Alikhan A, Baldwin HE, et. al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2016; 74(5): 945-73. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.12.037

  6. Cleveland Clinic. Q&A: Expert explains best way to handle your ingrown hair.

  7. Merck Manual Professional Version. Pseudofolliculitis barbae.