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What Is the Difference between an Ingrown Hair and a Boil?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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An ingrown hair and a boil are two totally different conditions with different symptoms and causes, though both can begin as small bumps on the body. Ingrown hairs occur when a hair starts growing into the skin, and they usually result in very small red bumps. A boil is a kind of skin infection generally caused by the staph bacteria. One major difference between an ingrown hair and a boil is that boils are generally much more severe, producing a larger bump and more serious infection.

Sometimes an ingrown hair can lead to a skin infection, but it is not the same as a boil, and it’s generally smaller. There are exceptions where an ingrown hair and a boil may look very similar, but it isn’t common. Boils can happen in oil glands and hair follicles, and they are caused by a wide variety of different things, many of which are preventable. Ingrown hairs often occur in areas where the clothing confines, like the underwear, and they are often caused when people don’t follow the right procedures during shaving.

Boils can actually be a sign of some fairly severe disorders, including diabetes and conditions that weaken a person’s immune system. There are also some relatively benign and preventable boil causes, and just about anybody can occasionally develop a boil. One common cause of boils is bad hygiene, which can result in bacterial buildup in certain areas of the body. People can also get boils because of allergic reactions to difference chemicals, and some people are more vulnerable to boils because of dietary issues.

One thing that an ingrown hair and a boil have in common is that they will both often heal without treatment. A boil will gradually become larger, filling with pus until eventually the skin breaks and the pus drains out. After that, a person will generally recover without difficulty, although some people may develop more severe infections requiring antibiotic treatments.

Ingrown hairs often go away without any special efforts. In cases where they don't, it's often easy to deal with them through the use of non-prescription remedies. It’s also generally true that people may have a lot of ingrown hairs for a long time without ever developing any severe pain or discomfort, so individuals may not realize they have a problem with them, especially if the bumps aren't in a readily visible area.

How To Prevent Boils

Boils are not entirely avoidable, but there are specific steps individuals may take to stop them from developing. First, it is crucial to keep your immune system strong. A healthy body is less susceptible to harmful bacteria and infection, so eat healthy foods and take vitamins. Second, you should clean your body and your surroundings.

Use Antibacterial Products 

Wash your face often with antibacterial soap to prevent bacteria from forming on your skin. Maintaining proper hygiene can reduce the risk of hair follicle infection and prevent boils from developing.

If you have sensitive skin, a medical professional might recommend using a specialty cleanser like Phisoderm to help maintain healthy skin. When showering, use a loofah brush to remove buildup and oil clogs from around irritated hair follicles.

Don't Squeeze It

To prevent a pilonidal cyst, avoid stressing the buttock area when a surrounding hair follicle becomes irritated.

Wash and dry your skin with regular soap and hot water. Using an antiseptic, such as benzoyl peroxide, may also be beneficial.

Use Oral Medication

Your doctor might give you pills that reduce your risk of getting abscesses. Antibiotics, especially, will help you not get abscesses by preventing the chances of infection in your skin.

Some people with Hidradenitis suppurativa have found relief from isotretinoin (Accutane). Patients with this condition frequently experience recurrent acne outbreaks.

Consider Surgical Removal

A case of hidradenitis suppurativa or recurrent pilonidal cysts may require surgical intervention. If the disease is severe and there are complications, a plastic surgeon may need to provide additional surgery on a boil or a cyst.

When To See a Doctor for Boil Symptoms

Try some home remedies at the first signs of boils, which include redness, itching, and a tender area on your skin that resembles a pimple or blister. These include neem oil, castor oil, and Epsom salts. However, you should see your doctor if your boil doesn't disappear in about two weeks.

How To Prevent Ingrown Hairs

Ingrown hairs can occur anywhere on your body, but they're most common on the legs, under the armpits, and around the jawline. If you notice ingrown hair as hairs start to grow again—whether from waxing or shaving—you might consider removing them.

Exfoliate Regularly 

Medical experts concur that dead skin cells are the leading cause of ingrown hairs. Exfoliation weekly will help prevent the buildup of dead skin cells on the skin's surface, making you more prone to ingrown hair.

Use products that contain lactic acid and micro-dermabrasion granules to remove dead skin cells. Your skin will become softer and less susceptible to ingrown hairs after that.

Use Hair Removal Lotions

Ingrown hairs are caused by shaving, which makes sense because when the hair regrows, it has a sharper edge and can readily push back into the skin.

You can prevent ingrown hairs by allowing your hair to grow freely without shaving it. However, if you'd rather de-fluff, there's a delicate hair removal treatment that may be right for you.

Use Shaving Lotion

Finding the proper shaving foam for your manual razor can make all the difference. It will provide extra slip to your skin, preventing blades from dragging and avoiding irritating sensitive areas. Choose an alcohol-free, sensitive formula to avoid drying out your skin.

Shave in the Direction of Hair Growth

When shaving against the direction of hair growth, each hair is cut at a steeper angle, increasing the likelihood that it may reappear under your skin. To avoid this, always shave in the direction of hair growth.

Leave It Alone

It is advisable to leave minor ingrown hairs alone; they usually go away on their own. If the hair is visible and near the skin, gently pluck it out with sterile tweezers.

If a hair is deeply buried beneath the skin's surface, don't try to find it by digging; instead, speak with your doctor first. It pays to be safe rather than sorry!

When To See a Doctor for Ingrown Hair Symptoms

If you have ingrown hair that is mildly infected, it may go away on its own. If not, or if the infection fails to improve after the first week, you should seek medical attention.

During an examination of your skin, the doctor can determine whether the ingrown hair is infected. Some severe cases may require treatment with antibiotics. You can also reduce ingrown hairs through lifestyle changes suggested by your doctor.

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Discussion Comments
By indigomoth — On Jun 30, 2011

It is possible to get a skin boil even when you do everything right. They don't always come from having poor hygiene.

I've never had one before, but recently I had one right near my eye, even though I wash my face every day.

When I asked the doctor if there was anything I could have done to prevent it he pretty much shrugged and said sometimes they just happen.

It was pretty awful, as it had to be drained twice, and I had to wear a patch over it. And they wouldn't give me a black patch, which would have at least been fun.

Plus it hurt and looked bad, but it is even worse if people think you deserve it for having bad hygiene.

By irontoenail — On Jun 29, 2011

Ingrown hairs are awful and some people just get them for what seems like no reason at all. I have always gotten them and never found a real solution for it.

In fact, it is to the point where I think the best thing to do is to go and get a permanent hair removal treatment, like electrolysis. It is supposed to be very painful and expensive, but knowing that there is nothing you can do about excess hair without breaking out into horrible and sometimes painful spots is incredible frustrating.

It's too bad that this society is so hung up over hair. I imagine the best way to avoid ingrown hairs is to not try to remove the hair, but I don't personally feel like that is a viable option.

By umbra21 — On Jun 29, 2011

Boils can be a particular problem if you are visiting or living in an area without running water.

When I was living in Africa we had to wash ourselves using a bucket of water and a ladle. While I don't think I had any boils, many of the other volunteers experienced them, particularly on their backs where it was difficult to wash thoroughly.

It was pretty awful, as one of the treatments for boils is antibiotics, but we would have to travel quite far to get this prescribed, so people would just grin and bear it.

So, I can tell you that the best boils treatment is to wait until the boil comes to a head, then lance it with a sterile pin, let it drain, and then wash it with salt water.

If you can get a doctor to do it though, that would be much better, as there is less chance of reinfection.

And you don't want to mess around with this, because boils can easily leave scarring.

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