If you found that you've had to master the art of concealing your lips, chances are you're dealing with a darkening of the area known as lip hyperpigmentation. Consultant dermatologist Mara Weinstein, MD, explains lip hyperpigmentation happens due to increased melanin deposits in the lip and says it can be caused by "several reasons including smoking, trauma, inflammatory reactions (such as food allergy), medications, and sun exposure."
Ryan Turner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, tells us "upper-lip hyperpigmentation is most often the result of the medical condition known as melasma." He adds, "Anyone can experience melasma, but it can be seen at higher frequencies in skin of color and women." The good news is, regardless of the root cause, lip hyperpigmentation can be corrected. Ahead, we tapped three derms for their tips in treating your pigmented pout. Scroll through for their advice.
Meet the Expert
- Mara Weinstein, MD, is a consultant dermatologist with clean and ethical skincare brand LOUM.
- Ryan Turner, MD, of Turner Dermatology, is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City who practices cosmetic dermatology, general dermatology, surgical dermatology, and laser surgery.
- Shauna Diggs, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist with over 20 years of experience who specializes in cosmetic and laser dermatology.
- Lily Talakoub is a board-certified dermatologist and a member of the Byrdie Review Board.
Wait It Out
In mild cases, lip hyperpigmentation can be the result of an allergic reaction. If this is the case, Weinstein suggests letting it run its course. "If the hyperpigmentation was due to an allergic reaction from food, a topical medication, or cosmetic application, typically this will resolve on its own over the course of a few months," she says.
Be Careful With Exfoliating
We love baby-soft lips as much as the next beauty junkie, but Weinstein cautions those with lip hyperpigmentation against abrasive lip scrubs. She explains that too much exfoliating "can cause trauma to the lips, called microabrasions, especially if you're using a beaded or sandy-type exfoliant."
Lay Off on Licking Your Lips
If you have a habit of licking your lips, Weinstein tells us this can be the leading cause of your hyperpigmentation. She says, "Oftentimes, patients with lip-licking habits can develop hyperpigmentation from inflammation of the skin." If this sounds like you, be mindful of this habit.
Skip the Smoke Break
Weinstein confidently suggests "avoiding smoking will help prevent discoloration." She tells us, "If your lip hyperpigmentation is due to smoking, it's less likely to resolve [with continued use]."
Consider Your Hormones
Turner attributes melasma and other hyperpigmentation to hormone-regulating medications like birth control and pregnancy. "Upper-lip hyperpigmentation is sometimes part of what is called 'pregnancy mask' and can be extensive," says Turner. "Speak to your doctor about any hormonal influences that may be contributing [to pigmentation issues] and how they can be modified."
Be Gentle With Your Skin
If you're dealing with hyperpigmentation of any sort, it's common to think that the more chemicals and strongest laser treatments, the better. While this may be true, it's important to engage in these techniques after consulting a dermatologist. Turner urges you to note that sometimes "chemical peels, lasers, and at-home devices can even paradoxically make [pigmentation issues] worse." He adds, "It's important to have a professional who knows how to manage any potential side effects."
Know When to See a Professional
Turner reassures us that "treating melasma or other causes of upper-lip hyperpigmentation is challenging even in the hands of a professional." With that said, it's important to know when it's time to seek professional help. He tells us, "If at-home remedies are not working, it's time to see a board-certified dermatologist to go over a personalized skincare routine that suits your skin type and will safely treat your dark discoloration."
Lily Talakoub, MD, FAAD, also says that moles on the lips can tend to look like pigmentation. "If an individual mole or freckle appears on your lip, I recommend seeing a dermatologist for evaluation," she says. Dr. Talakoub also notes that melanoma can occur on the lip too. "Lip lesions needs evaluation as this is a high risk area for sun damage and skin cancers," she explains.
Lay Off on the Waxing
Trauma to the skin around the lips can further exacerbate the darkening on the lips—Turner says this includes hair removal such as threading and waxing. He recommends spacing out your appointments or giving them up altogether "to minimize the physical trauma to the area that is stimulating the pigmentation."
In general, sunscreen is vital to healthy skin. Turner explains, "Sunscreens that contain mineral blockers such as zinc oxide can prevent melasma and other types of hyperpigmentation." He also adds, "Daily application of a mineral blocker SPF 30 is typically recommended, but for my melasma patients, I have them use an SPF 50 or higher."
Check Your Ingredients List
If you have specific skincare goals in mind, it's important to choose your product ingredients accordingly. Diggs, Weinstein, and Turner all recommend investing in active ingredients hydroquinone, tranexamic acid, kojic acid, glycolic acid, and retinol. However, Diggs warns these ingredients "can be very effective but not overused, which might create irritation." If you're looking for something a bit more gentle, Weinstein recommends brighteners like niacinamide and licorice," but adds, "[they] aren't as effective in reversing the pigmentary changes. On the flip side, if you're looking for something medical-grade, Turner tells us that "agents such as topical tranexamic acid and topical cysteamine can also be considered by your board-certified dermatologist."
Hydroquinone is a chemical compound used in products that treat hyperpigmentation. It works by interacting with the melanin-producing cells in the skin and decreasing the production of pigment.
Suppose you have sensitive skin that can't handle these harsher ingredients. In that case, Turner says that "daily application of a vitamin C serum can be helpful with pigmentation, and it's gentle on the skin." Diggs adds, "If you have more sensitive skin, avoid possible irritants like mint, for instance." Ingredients that irritate the area will only further exacerbate lip hyperpigmentation.
Schedule a Laser Appointment
If you're looking for the fastest results, Diggs recommends looking into laser treatments that correct the melanin overproduction rather than just treat it topically. "The lip area responds very well to laser treatments like the Lumenis PiQo4 that specifically targets melanin pigment," says Diggs. She says this particular laser uses "nano- and pico-second light wavelengths to target the melanin in the skin, dissolving it into smaller and smaller pieces. With the darker melanin removed, the lips automatically lighten to their natural color."
Basit H, Godse KV, Al Aboud AM. Melasma. [Updated 2021 Aug 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459271/
Fatima, S., Braunberger, T., Mohammad, T. F., Kohli, I., & Hamzavi, I. H. (2020). The Role of Sunscreen in Melasma and Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation. Indian journal of dermatology, 65(1), 5–10. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijd.IJD_295_18