Couple on bed discussing genital warts vs. ingrown hair

Genital Warts vs. Ingrown Hair: How To Tell The Difference

Medically reviewed on Nov 17, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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According to the CDC, as many as 1 in 5 sexually active adults in the US have an STI.[1] Understandably, this can introduce a layer of anxiety when you notice an unusual lump or bump, particularly in the area around your genitals.

Ingrown hairs and genital warts are two skin conditions with very different causes. While ingrown hairs are largely innocuous—caused by a disturbance in hair pattern growth—genital warts are caused by certain forms of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Knowing how to tell the difference between genital warts vs. ingrown hair can be a crucial matter of sexual health. Below, we cover how they compare in appearance, treatment, and prevention methods to help you protect your well-being and peace of mind.

What Causes Ingrown Hairs?

Ingrown hairs are just what they sound like: on its way out of the hair follicle, a hair “curved” back into or against the skin, creating pressure and inflammation. The process is more likely to occur if:

  • You use depilatory (hair removal) treatments – Any time you remove the hair from your body, there’s a chance you could develop an ingrown hair. Hair removal treatments could include shaving, waxing, plucking, or threading.[2]
  • You have coarse or very curly hair – This hair type is more likely to develop more ingrown hairs than people with straight or fine hair.[2]
  • You wear tight-fitting clothes – Garments like exercise gear or leotards can rub against skin and hair, encouraging it to grow backward.[2]

Ingrown Hair Complications

Though most ingrown hairs resolve on their own in a few weeks, some can become irritated. This can lead to [2]:

  • Infection – Some ingrown hairs can become infected with bacteria, especially if it’s touched often. Often, these will form a cyst that fills with pus.
  • Hyperpigmentation – Sometimes, infected ingrown hairs can result in hyperpigmentation—dark patches on the skin—when they eventually heal.
  • Scarring – If an ingrown hair has been irritated during the healing process, it can create scarring. This may happen if you scratch at the area excessively without removing the hair trapped inside. Scarring may take the form of keloids, which are raised and dark scars, or grooves, which are flat and sunken scars.

What Causes Genital Warts?

Genital warts are a symptom of HPV, the most prevalent STI in the US.[4] You can contract HPV any time you engage in skin-to-skin contact with an infected person, including [4]:

  • Vaginal sex
  • Anal sex
  • Oral sex
  • Genital touching

There are many different strains of HPV—over 200 in total—and not all of them cause genital warts.[5,6] Genital warts are caused by two specific HPV strains:

  • HPV 6
  • HPV 11

There is currently no cure for HPV or genital warts, though the immune system typically takes care of the virus within 1 to 2 years of getting infected.[5] However, if you think you might have it, it’s important to seek out a healthcare provider as both genital warts and HPV are extremely contagious. Seeking treatment can help prevent you from passing the infection on and reduce your and your partner(s)’ risk of HPV-related health complications.

Genital Warts Complications

Genital warts symptoms and complications can vary from person to person. At times, genital warts can [7]:

  • Feel itchy, irritated, or uncomfortable
  • Cause a burning sensation
  • Cause mild bleeding

Note that some strains of HPV contribute to the development of certain cancers. While these are different strains of HPV than the strains that cause genital warts, co-infection is common.

HPV-related cancers include [5]:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Vulvar cancer
  • Penile cancer
  • Throat cancer

How To Identify Ingrown Hairs

A person can develop an ingrown hair anywhere on their body, but you’re most likely to get one where you frequently practice hair removal. To assess whether you might have one, you can examine their:

  • Size – It’s rare for an ingrown hair to be larger than a few millimeters wide. Most appear as very small bumps on the skin.
  • Color – Ingrown hairs typically carry a flushed color or look a few shades darker than flesh-toned. They are usually purple, red, or brown, sometimes with a hair visible inside.[2] If they become infected, they develop a white cap, which makes them easy to mistake for acne.[2]
  • Texture – Ingrown hairs are smooth. They have a consistent texture, though they are usually raised above the skin.[2]
  • Growth pattern – You may see several ingrown hairs together in a given area, but they tend to be scattered or appear alone.
  • Location – You’re most likely to notice an ingrown hair in a place on your body where you’ve shaved or had your pubic hair removed. They tend to crop up in the legs, genital area, underarms, or face.[2]

How To Identify Genital Warts

One of the best ways to differentiate between ingrown hairs and genital warts is to think about how long you’ve had them. So, how long do genital warts last? Typically, genital warts last much longer than ingrown hairs. If you think you’ve had ingrown hair for more than a few weeks, it’s worth reaching out to a healthcare provider to get a proper diagnosis.

That said, genital warts are often identifiable by the following traits [8]:

  • Size – Genital warts tend to start small. Unlike ingrown hairs, they can sometimes grow and “cluster” over time. Noticing any changes in your genital bumps or growths is a good sign to reach out to a healthcare provider.
  • Color – Genital warts don’t always have a different color than skin. Usually, they appear slightly more pink or darker than your natural skin tone. Their color is highly variable between individuals.
  • Texture – Genital wart texture is also diverse. Warts may be rough or smooth; many are described as having a cauliflower-like appearance. They may lie flush against the skin or appear bumpy and elevated. Sometimes, genital warts bleed during sexual activity.
  • Growth pattern – Genital warts may arise in groups or scattered over a broader surface area of your skin.
  • Location – As the name suggests, genital warts most frequently appear at the site of infection (near the vagina or penis, depending on your biological sex). They may also be found in or on the vulva, cervix, scrotum, groin, or thighs. It’s also possible to get warts around the mouth if you contract HPV through oral sex. In this case, you might see them on the lips, tongue, or throat.

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Ingrown Hairs Treatment And Prevention

Ingrown hairs can be remedied at home with simple methods. You might try [9]:

  • A warm, moist compress – Wet a washcloth with warm water and pad it over your ingrown hair. This can soften the surrounding tissue, making it easier to pluck and remove the hair causing the inflammation.
  • Exfoliating OTC products – Products designed to treat ingrown hairs contain exfoliants. These can help break down dead skin cells trapping hair beneath the skin, making it easier to tweeze. Typical formulas include toners, lotions, and moist pads.

If you want to minimize ingrown hairs in the genital area, consider discontinuing or changing your current hair removal methods. You can also prevent hair from growing in on itself by [10]:

  • Shaving in the direction your hair grows
  • Using a sharper blade to shave
  • Always ensure an area is wet before shaving
  • Exfoliating regularly and before hair removal
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothing

Genital Warts Treatment And Prevention

As mentioned, most genital warts will dissipate on their own within 2 years after contracting an HPV infection. Several treatments and procedures are available to remove or lessen the appearance of warts, including [11]:

  • Topical medications – Ointments and other solutions are available to help heal or minimize the appearance of genital warts. The primary ones include Condylox, Aldara, or Zyclara. Depending on your prescription, these may be applied at home or by a healthcare provider.
  • Removal procedures – Some people elect to remove genital warts by chemical, laser, or electric, or surgical methods. Certain procedures may carry some side effects (like scarring). One of the most effective methods is cryotherapy, where genital warts are frozen off using a liquid nitrogen solution.

Can HPV come back after these treatments? Sometimes, which is why the single best way to avoid genital warts and HPV is to practice proactive, preventative approaches to sexual health. This includes:

  • Pelvic exams and Pap smears – If you’re a woman or person AFAB, routine pelvic exams can assess whether you may be at risk of cervical cancer.
  • Using barrier contraceptives – If you or a partner is infected with genital warts, HPV, or another STI, using a latex condom or dental dam can reduce your chances of transmission.
  • Open dialogue with partners – Communicating openly with your sexual partners about your STI status is an important part of making informed, safe sexual decisions. Sexual abstinence, limiting your partner pool, or entering into a long-standing monogamous relationship are other options for reducing your chances of infection or transmission.

Remember, while genital warts indicate HPV infection, many other types of HPV can be altogether asymptomatic. The single best way to prevent genital warts is to test for STIs regularly and stay up-to-date on your and your partner(s)’ status.

Make STI Testing Convenient With Everlywell

Keeping current on your sexual health is one of the most effective ways to limit your chances of contracting HPV and other STIs. Whether you want to test for HPV or 6 common STIs, Everlywell gives you a comprehensive look at your sexual wellness with convenient, affordable at-home testing.

Every Everlywell at-home HPV test is processed by CLIA-certified labs and physician-reviewed to ensure you get results and care guidance you can trust. Find out what you can learn about your sexual health and overall well-being by partnering with Everlywell today.

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  1. CDC estimates 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have a sexually transmitted infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 25, 2021. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  2. Professional CC medical. Ingrown hair: What it looks like, causes, treatment & prevention. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  3. Ingrown hair. Mayo Clinic. May 18, 2022. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  4. Professional CC medical. Genital warts: Causes, symptoms, treatment & prevention. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  5. HPV and cancer. National Cancer Institute. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  6. Std Facts - Human papillomavirus (HPV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 12, 2022. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  7. Professional CC medical. Genital warts: Causes, symptoms, treatment & prevention. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  8. Genital warts: Signs and symptoms. American Academy of Dermatology. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  9. Coolicc. How to get an ingrown hair out at home. Cleveland Clinic. May 10, 2022. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  10. Coolicc. How to get an ingrown hair out at home. Cleveland Clinic. May 10, 2022. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
  11. Genital warts - statpearls - NCBI bookshelf. URL. Accessed October 23, 2023.
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