Is It an Acne Pimple or an Ingrown Hair?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Many people who think they have acne actually have ingrown hairs. It's easy to mistake ingrown hairs for pimples because they look so similar. But their causes and their treatments are different, so it's important to accurately identify them so you can treat them correctly.

Do you have acne pimples or ingrown hairs? Here are the differences.

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


The development of pimples and ingrown hairs stem from different causes.

How Pimples Develop

A pimple forms when a plug of oil and dead skin cells blocks the opening of the hair follicle or pore. When the pore becomes engorged with enough oil and acne-causing bacteria, the pressure can rupture the follicle wall. All that material spills into the surrounding skin causing irritation, redness, and swelling, resulting in a pimple.

How Ingrown Hairs Develop

Ingrown hairs develop in hair follicles as well, but they aren't formed by a pore blockage. Instead, it's the hair itself that goes awry. Normally, hairs grow straight up and out of the pore. In the case of an ingrown hair, the hair grows sideways back into the skin through the follicle wall.

The skin now sees this hair as a foreign invader. This causes redness, swelling, and sometimes pus. The resulting bump can look remarkably like an acne pimple.


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

Pimple-like bumps in areas where you shave are probably ingrown hairs. If you shave, wax, or tweeze, your chances of developing ingrown hairs in that area also go up. When the hair grows back, the sharp edge makes it easier to pierce the skin and grow into it. 

As an ingrown hair curls, it can easily get redirected and start growing back into the skin rather than up out of the pore. For men, ingrown hairs are most common in the beard area. Men who shave their heads can also get ingrown hairs on their scalp.

For women, ingrown hairs are most common on the legs, underarms, lip, and eyebrow area—basically, all the areas where they shave, tweeze, or wax.

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.

It's likely ingrown hairs if your breakouts are concentrated in the areas where you shave.

Identifying Pimples

If you have pimples in other areas, like your forehead, chest, or back, It's probably acne. Pimples can appear in the beard area (for men) but they also develop on other areas of the face, like the nose and forehead.

Pimples are also common on the back, chest, shoulders, and neck. If you have breakouts where you don't shave or wax, it's likely acne. 

How to Treat Ingrown Hairs

If you have just a couple of ingrown hairs, they will usually heal themselves with time. Using a face or body scrub in the areas where you tend to get ingrown hair can help keep hair lifted, and prevent ingrown hairs from developing. 

Changing your shaving technique can do a lot to help prevent ingrown hairs, too. Don't try for too close of a shave, and use a good shaving cream. 

Probably the best prevention is to stop shaving, waxing, and tweezing completely. You'll have to decide if this is an option you can live with.

If you have a lot of ingrown hairs, especially if they are very red, inflamed, and painful, you might need a prescription medication to get them under control. Interestingly, some of the medications that are used to treat ingrown hairs are the same that are used to treat acne—tretinoin or topical antibiotics.

And, just like with acne, cases of ingrown hairs can cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or darkening of the skin. This can also be treated with tretinoin or azelaic acid.

Serious or incessant cases of ingrown hairs should be seen by a medical professional, especially if you have a single ingrown hair that is extremely painful, swollen, and infected-looking.

How to Treat Acne

If your breakouts are minor, just a few pimples and blackheads here and there, over-the-counter acne products is a good first step. Try one with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide for several weeks and see if there is any improvement.

More inflamed or widespread breakouts should be treated by a dermatologist. These types of acne typically don't improve with over-the-counter (OTC) products, so you'll probably need prescription medications to get them under control.

A Word From Verywell

These two skin issues can often look remarkably similar, and it can be hard to tell them apart. 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 devise 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: The steam will help soften individual hairs.
    • Shave in the direction hair grows rather than against the grain.
    • 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?

    The term "razor bumps" typically refers to pseudofolliculitis barbae, a condition common among people with tightly curly hair, especially Black males who shave their beards and women who shave or pluck the pubic area. It occurs when ingrown hairs cause inflammatory lesions that if not treated can cause keloid (raised) scarring.

  • Is it OK to pull out ingrown hairs?

    It is not. Trying to "dig out" an ingrown hair or pop a pustule caused by one in order to get to the hair puts you at risk of 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?
9 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. Updated February 28, 2018.

  3. Merck Manuals. Ingrown beard hairs. Updated October 2019.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Ingrown hair: Management and treatment. Updated February 28, 2018.

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

  6. MedlinePlus. Folliculitis. Updated October 8, 2018.

  7. 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

  8. Cleveland Clinic. Q&A: Expert Explains Best Way to Handle Your Ingrown Hair. Published Feb 10, 2020.

  9. Merck Manual Professional Version. Pseudofolliculitis barbae. Updated Nov 2020.