If you are unfamiliar with the lifecycle of a cold sore, it can be confused with other skin conditions. The appearance of an ingrown hair (especially if it has somehow become infected) shares some visual similarities to the untrained eye.

In fact, cold sores and ingrown hairs do have a few things in common. Both conditions are treatable, but knowing how to identify the differences is essential to treatment selection and faster healing.

In this guide, you will learn why people get ingrown hairs. You’ll find out how to tell the difference between an ingrown hair and a cold sore. Finally, you’ll learn how to heal the area and some prevention methods.

What Causes an Ingrown Hair?

The bending and re-entering of facial hair that has been cut is the cause of ingrown hair.

It can occur in any location on the body. The hair curls downward into the skin and then becomes trapped.[1] Those who have naturally coarse or curly hair are more likely to suffer from this issue.

Ingrown hair can become a recurring issue for some. This is especially true for African-American and Latino men.

Additionally, those (more notably men) who have increased hormone levels are more susceptible to ingrown hair. This is due to excessive hair growth and the constant need to trim or shave facial and body hair.

When ingrown hair becomes a more problematic issue, a condition known as pseudofolliculitis barbae can develop. Commonly known as razor bumps, those affected encounter ingrown hair seemingly after every shave.[2]

This problem is caused by cut hair returning very stiff and with a sharper edge. This type of hair is more likely to curve and re-enter this skin, hence the reasons that it has become trapped under the surface.

To summarize:

  • Ingrown hair is the result of grown hair re-entering the skin and becoming trapped under the surface.
  • Those who have naturally coarse or curly hair are more likely to suffer.
  • The condition known as pseudofolliculitis barbae is essentially the perpetual state of razor bumps. This happens when short and stiff hair turns inward on a regular basis. If you have ever seen an adult male with a series of facial bumps, this is likely the result of ingrown hair rather than acne or some other skin condition.

Cold Sore vs. Ingrown Hair: How to Tell Them Apart

Cold sores follow a distinct cycle. This is the most critical way you can tell them apart. From the initial tingle sensation until the flaking away of the scab, cold sores follow a process. While you can speed up this process with an OTC treatment, the cycle will still occur. Cold sores, especially during initial occurrence, can also produce other symptoms. These include fever, headache, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes.

On the flipside, the blisters and bumps associated with an ingrown hair will appear. The initial sign of pain will usually be due to the nodule itself. There is no early sensation to warn you nor will there be other symptoms such as fever or fatigue.

Additionally, even when occurring on the fringe of the lips, ingrown hairs will not spread. The problem areas that are produced are quite localized. This is not always the case with cold sores due to viral spreading.

Another way to tell cold sores apart from ingrown hairs is the impact natural hair growth will have in the area. In many cases, a sore caused by an ingrown hair will begin to diminish as the hair continues to grow. Because hair growth and cold sores are irrelevant, growing a mustache, for example, will not ease your fever blister.

To recap:

  • While sharing somewhat of a similar visual appearance, ingrown hairs often appear without warning. With cold sores, you’ll notice a tingling feeling before the presence of a visual blister. This means that the virus has traveled down the nerve ganglia. Primary cold sore outbreaks can also produce symptoms other than just the appearance of a blister. Ingrown hairs do not prompt symptoms of fever.
  • Ingrown hairs and the bumps they produce will not spread. This is not always the case with cold sores. Because cold sores are the result of the herpes simplex virus, and contagious when active, the infection can be spread to other areas of the face. You can touch an ingrown hair blister, and it will cause no harm outside of minor irritation at the location point.
  • If you are concerned that you have a cold sore, use a treatment. OTC selections such as Abreva and Orajel can potentially heal your blisters in less than half of the time. In fact, the HERP-B-GONE can clear up an outbreak in as little as 72 hours.

Can I Get an Infected Ingrown Hair? 

Yes, if you poke at the bumps and blisters that have formed. While it is doubtful that anyone would purposely cause harm to their skin, curiosity can get the best of everyone at times. It is better to avoid touching the area.

Squeezing the problem area can also result in a painful infection. This can lead to skin damage and potentially result in a scar.

Folliculitis, which is the name for the most common infection caused by an ingrown hair, typically heals without treatment in a matter of days.[3] If you think you have an infection of this nature, your best course of action is to avoid shaving for a few days. As briefly noted earlier, hair growth can push out some ingrown hairs thus rectifying the situation naturally.

If you are looking for specific medical solutions to heal an infection, the use of a mild antiseptic is often helpful. The inclusion of tea tree oil can also serve to promote positive healing.

While rare, antibiotics can be administered if an infection becomes severe and fails to diminish naturally or with treatment.

To summarize:

  • Ingrown hairs can become infected. While most are relatively minor and will heal naturally, some require treatment.
  • Most infections are due to touch. The constant touching and rubbing of a bump or blister can introduce bacteria.

infected ingrown hair or cold sore virus?

How to Remove Ingrown Hairs 

While ingrown hairs will typically heal on their own in a reasonably short period, you can remove them safely. You might find this useful if you have multiple ingrown hairs on a regular basis.

Noted below are just a few proven ways to remove ingrown hairs and heal your skin:

  • Hydrocortisone cream can be applied to the area to reduce inflammation. This will relax the skin and potentially cause the hair to resurface.
  • Applying a hot compress is also a proven way to remove ingrown hairs. Heat can loosen the skin, thus loosening your hair.
  • Washing the surrounding areas with anti-bacterial soap is also a reliable method. This can force hair out from underneath the skin.
  • One of the more aggressive ways to remove an ingrown hair is by just pulling it out. Using a sterile pair of tweezers, you can pull the hair out if you see the slightest bit above the surface. While this method will likely cause pain, the sensation will quickly dull, and the skin will naturally heal. OTC topical cream can be applied to the area once you are done to ensure fast healing.

Can I Prevent Ingrown Facial Hair?

Although most every man has encountered an ingrown hair from time-to-time, there are ways to prevent an occurrence. Robust prevention methods are essential, especially when you are learning how to shave and have naturally problematic skin.

Listed below are several ways you can not only prevent ingrown hair[4] but also protect your skin from dryness and abrasions:

Two different skin conditions distinguished

  • Use a sharp single-bladed razor when you shave. This will allow you to get a close and clean shave thus preventing any oddly-cut hairs from turning inward.
  • Wetting your skin and using shave gel is vital. Learning to moisturize your skin will allow your hair to come out from beneath the skin. This makes for a more comfortable and a safer shave.
  • Ingrown hair can be avoided if you can shave in the direction of growth. This applies to the face, legs, and the body in general. The ability to shave with the grain rather than against it can promote proper skin health. Before shaving, look at the direction that hair naturally grows and follow the path of least resistance with your razor.
  • Another critical prevention technique involves a gentle hand and gentle blade action. Aggressive blade strokes can irritate the skin in a variety of ways. The fewer blade strokes that you implement, the better your skin will feel in the long run. This is also why the use of a sharp blade is critical. It will mean that you will have to make fewer passes over the same areas.
  • Always use a clean blade. This will keep your skin fresh and free of bacteria. Shaving can come at a price if the edge you are using is introducing germs to your already supple and moisturized skin.

Take good care of your skin. Although cold sores appear due to a virus, protecting your skin can potentially decrease your outbreaks. Additionally, as it relates to ingrown hair, keeping your skin clean and your blade sharp can produce quality results.


  1. Luo D-Q, Liang Y-H, Li X-Q, Zhao Y-K, Wang F, Sarkar R. Ingrowing Hair: A Case Report. Maatouk. I, ed. Medicine. 2016;95(19):e3660. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000003660.
  2. Gray, J. and McMichael, A. J. Pseudofolliculitis barbae: understanding the condition and the role of facial grooming. Int J Cosmet Sci, 2016;38: 24-27. doi:10.1111/ics.12331
  3. Laureano AC, Schwartz RA, Cohen PJ. Facial bacterial infections: folliculitis. Clin Dermatol. 2014;32:711–714.
  4. Alexis A, Heath CR, Halder RM. Folliculitis keloidalis nuchae and pseudofolliculitis barbae: are prevention and effective treatment within reach? Dermatol Clin. 2014;32(2):183–191. doi: 10.1016/j.det.2013.12.001.