Walking around with itchy, painful bumps under your arms is the pits (…I know, I know). And the only thing more annoying than trying to distract yourself from scratching under there all day long is trying to figure out what the heck is going on in the first place. There are a few things that may be causing your itchy armpits, and the most common include razor burn, an allergic reaction, or ingrown hairs.
The problem, though, is that these issues tend to look and feel fairly similar, so determining how to treat them on your own can feel next-to impossible. To solve this sitch once and for all, I chatted with Austin-based dermatologist Ted Lain, MD on how to tell the difference between the most common causes of itchy armpits and exactly what you can do to deal with ’em. Read on for everything you need to know about the bumps under your arms.
What it looks like: If you’ve ever panic-shaven your armpits on your way out the door, you likely know the deal with razor burn. It’s lots of small, pink bumps, which look the same and tend to stay concentrated in one area. And, yes—they itch like hell.
Why it happens: Long story short? Your razor is doing you dirty. Your skin either isn’t moisturized enough when you shave, or you’re using something that’s a little too heavy duty for the job at hand. “We find that five- or six-bladed razors are just too much for the skin,” says Dr. Lain. “They strip it too much of the natural dead skin layers.”
How to deal: The best way to deal with razor burn is prevention. Swap your heavy-duty shaver for a single- or double-blade option (making sure it isn’t dull or rusty), and use actual shaving *cream* instead of a foam or a gel. “Creams tend to have more emollients, and tend to help the glide of the razor blade a little bit more,” explains Dr. Lain. Post-shave, moisturize with a nourishing, fragrance-free body lotion, like Aveeno Unscented Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($7) or Nécessaire Fragrance-Free Body Lotion ($25).
What it looks like: “Ingrown hairs usually give fewer bumps than razor bumps, and are more inflamed and tender,” says Dr. Lain. “Also, razor bumps tend to resolve quite quickly, whereas ingrown hairs persist until the hair is removed.”
Why it happens: TBH, underarm ingrowns don’t happen as frequently as other pesky pit problems. “It’s uncommon for ingrown hairs to occur in the underarm area. It’s much more common in the bikini area,” says Dr. Lain. “Certain skin types have them more commonly—darker skin tones tend to suffer from them more commonly than lighter skin tones. Usually we don’t see a lot of ingrown hairs in the underarms, however, it’s more of an irritation.”
How to deal: Resist the urge to grab a pair of Tweezers and go to town on that sucker (trust me—I know how hard it is). Instead, use a chemical exfoliator, like Beauty RX Advanced Exfoliating Pads ($70), to get the job done, or try some tea tree oil ($10) on the area.
What it looks like: Contact dermatitis—AKA an allergic reaction on the skin—can look similar to razor burn, but it tends to be more patchy, less bumpy, and itchier.
Why it happens: If you’re having a reaction, it’s likely from the fragrance in your deodorant. Though natural sweat sticks don’t have antiperspirant in them, they still have a pretty strong “masking fragrance,” Dr. Lain explains. For those who switch to a natural deodorant only to be greeted by rashy pits, it could also be the baking soda itself. Because the pH of baking soda is between 9 and 9.5 (alkaline) and the skin’s pH is between 4 to 5.5 (fairly acidic), so the disparity between the two can cause a reaction to occur in the most sensitive skin types.
How to deal: Change up your stick. “If I have patients who come in with that long-standing itching in the under arms, the first thing we do is we cut out deodorant and stick with a pure anti-perspirant and see how they do,” says Dr. Lain, suggesting a fragrance-free option. Not only does this keep you from rubbing fragrance on your underarms, it also nixes the baking soda from your regimen.
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