Ingrown hair vs. herpes: what are the differences?

Medically reviewed on March 8, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. 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.


If you recently noticed an inflamed bump in your genital area, you may be fearing the worst. Two common infections—genital herpes and ingrown hairs—could be to blame, but how can you tell which (if either) affliction is giving you trouble?

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at ingrown hair vs. herpes infections. If you’ve never experienced the symptoms of either condition, our exploration of the causes, signs, and long-term effects of each could help to identify a current genital skin condition. We’ll also discuss some key differences to help you determine whether to consider taking an at-home STD test for women or STD test for men.

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What are ingrown hairs?

Ingrown hairs usually present as tender pustules with a tiny, dark dot near the center [1]. While they sometimes resemble acne, they can grow much larger, become much more painful, and sometimes require specialized tools to eradicate.

How do ingrown hairs develop?

Two populations are especially susceptible to developing ingrown hairs:

  • People with coarse or curly hair – In people with curls, their hair can often grow at an acute angle, even early in the growth process. But, if a hair curls too sharply downward, the end of the strand can poke into the skin and begin to grow inward, causing an ingrown hair. Coarse hairs can often behave the same way, especially if they're subjected to friction from clothes, sexual activity, or shaving.
  • People who shave – While ingrown hairs are especially common in the beard area, they can occur anywhere that you shave your skin, including the legs, genitals, back, and armpits. When a razor doesn’t completely slice off a hair, the strand can develop a sharp edge that grows back into the skin—an ingrown hair.

Once a hair begins to grow back into the skin, the likelihood of an infection developing can increase. Ingrown hair infections are usually distinguishable from acne, and you can identify an ingrown hair based upon [2]:

  • Diameter – Some ingrown hair bumps can grow up to the size of a quarter.
  • Healing time – Ingrown hairs can sometimes take months to heal.
  • Visible hair – Strands causing the infection are usually visible in the center of the bump.
  • Hyperpigmentation – The bump and the skin around it may darken, resembling a bruise.

Can ingrown hairs spread an infection?

While they’re uncomfortable at best and painful at worst, ingrown hairs are—luckily—not contagious.

You can contract ingrown hairs only via the physical process of hair growing inward instead of outward. While skipping shaving cream or using a dull razor can increase the risk of ingrown hair, one’s hair texture may increase the likelihood even if they don’t shave.

While you can’t spread ingrown hairs to another person, you can increase the severity of your own infection. Touching ingrown hairs with unwashed hands could introduce new and additional bacteria to the wound, increasing healing times or worsening pain.

To prevent this, be sure to:

  • Wash your hands with warm, soapy water before examining an ingrown hair
  • Sanitize tools with isopropyl alcohol before attempting to extract the hair
  • Wash the wound with alcohol, iodine, or another disinfectant frequently.

Taking care to maintain the wound can prevent worsening infections and improve healing outcomes.

Do ingrown hairs result in any long-term effects?

While hair texture or sub-par shaving tools may increase the risk of getting an ingrown hair, you most likely won’t experience any long-term side effects after it heals [1].

Like acne and other skin infections, ingrown hairs can leave a scar, especially if you do the following:

  • Frequently touch the wound with unwashed hands
  • Unsuccessfully try to extract the hair
  • Continue to shave the area while it’s trying to heal

If left alone, the swelling, hyperpigmentation, and the ingrown hair itself will usually heal on its own. While you can remove the affected hair with tools like blackhead extractors or tweezers, this is a job best managed by a healthcare provider—ideally, a dermatologist.

You can also use a variety of over-the-counter products to prevent or heal scarring, like Allantoin gel (frequently sold as Mederma). While the scars may appear unsightly early in the healing process, the skin will return to its normal pigmentation over time.

When dealing with ingrown hairs, pack your patience—while you can take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen to manage minor pain, they won’t heal the infection any faster. And, as always, if your ingrown takes an inordinately long time to heal—more than two months—seek an examination from a healthcare provider.

What is herpes?

Now that we’ve explored ingrown hairs, let’s cover herpes. Genital herpes, a common skin condition caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2), is spread via skin and saliva contact and can cause small, painful genital warts [3]. Let’s dig deeper to help you identify and treat this common sexually transmitted disease (STD).

How do people develop herpes infections?

The two causes of genital herpes—HSV-1 and HSV-2—aren’t necessarily spread via sexual activity, but the skin-to-skin and saliva contact involved in common sexual activities often results in infection.

While both HSV infections can cause genital herpes, they have some key differences [3]:

  • HSV-1 is the most common cause of oral herpes, which usually presents as cold sores on or inside the mouth. But infected people can spread HSV-1 via oral sex, sometimes causing genital HSV-1 infection.
  • HSV-2 is spread via skin-to-skin and/or fluid contact, most commonly during sex. But, like HSV-1, it can be spread via oral sex, resulting in an outbreak in the facial area.

You can contract either HSV type via:

(1) Body fluid exchange with an infected person, including —

  • Saliva
  • Ejaculate (from partners of any sex)
  • Urine

(2) Skin-to-skin contact during —

  • Kissing
  • Penetrative sex
  • Non-penetrative sex (like oral sex)

Contrary to popular belief, you cannot contract either HSV type from:

  • Toilet seats
  • Bedding
  • Touching objects like silverware or soap

The key element of understanding herpes contraction is that herpes spreads via human-human contact, not human-object contact.

Is herpes contagious?

Unlike ingrown hairs, a genital herpes infection (from both virus types) is highly contagious. As a result, HSV-1 and 2 are some of the most common STDs in the United States. In 2018, the CDC estimated that over 18.6 million people had HSV-2 nationwide [4].

Unfortunately, preventing HSV infections can be difficult for a few reasons:

  • During sex, condoms (when used correctly) only protect the skin that they cover. Infected people can spread the virus via non-penetrative pubic friction since these areas aren’t typically covered by a condom.
  • While fluid exchange is most common during sex, think of all the other times you’ve accidentally exchanged fluids with someone before. Many children, for instance, contract oral HSV-1 or 2 via saliva exchange from drooling and sharing drinks or food.
  • You can spread HSV infections even if you’re unaware that you’re infected. So, even if you’re not currently experiencing symptoms (genital sores or oral warts), you can infect another person via sexual contact or fluid exchange.

Thus, abstinence from penetrative sex isn’t a reasonable prevention method for herpes—oral or genital. But seeking medical treatment for flare-up infections and abstaining from fluid exchange and sexual activity while there are visible symptoms can prevent infection from spreading.

Are there long-term effects of herpes?

There isn’t currently a cure for HSV-1 or HSV-2 [3]. So you’re likely to experience the effects of genital herpes for the rest of your life. What does that look like for the average infected person?

Expect to observe occasional flare-ups of genital or oral warts throughout life. Flare-ups may present as one or a few small, slightly tender warts. While you can still spread the infection even if you don’t have any visible warts, you’re most contagious when experiencing symptoms.

For patients seeking aesthetic care or pain reduction, healthcare providers can reduce or remove warts using chemical freezing, ligation, or application of topical medications. You can also take daily medication to prevent flare-ups.

While you’ll remain contagious, you likely won’t experience constant pain—genital warts are slightly painful during flare-ups, but life will likely remain normal most of the time. Pain management and taking extra care to prevent spreading are the main things to focus on after receiving a diagnosis.

Ingrown hair vs. herpes: key differences

Let’s review some key differences between ingrown hair vs. herpes infections:

  • While ingrown hairs aren’t contagious, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are highly transmissible via skin-to-skin contact and fluid exchange between an infected person and an uninfected person.
  • While ingrown hairs can take a month or more to heal, herpes warts may only take one to two weeks to disappear (depending on the treatment method chosen). But herpes infections are very likely to recur throughout your life.
  • An ingrown hair is not an STD, while both HSV-1 and 2 are classified as STDs despite their common exchange via non-sexual contact.

Now that you know some differences between ingrown hair bumps and herpes bumps, you are more aware of what you may be experiencing. If you experience herpes symptoms, it's highly recommended to get tested and seek care.

Stay up-to-date on your sexual health with at-home testing

While both ingrown hairs and herpes are frustrating, there’s only one way to confirm which ailment you currently have—seeking high-quality care from a healthcare provider and performing a routine STD test. Understanding the difference between ingrown hair vs herpes infection is important, but it's even more crucial to seek testing to take care of one’s sexual health.

At Everlywell, we know how stressful any medical symptoms can be. That’s why we provide affordable, comprehensive, at-home STD testing to people of all sexes: learn more about the STD Test - Female or STD Test - Male. Our STD tests detect seven different infections (including HSV-2), and they’re an excellent method for achieving peace of mind and/or an early diagnosis.

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References

1. Puhan MR, Sahu B. Pseudofolliculitis corporis: a new entity diagnosed by dermoscopy. Int J Trichology. 2015;7(1):30-32.

2. Ingrown Hair. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

3. Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

4. Sexually Transmitted Infections Prevalence, Incidence, and Cost Estimates in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

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