As a certified lip color fiend, with truly too many lip balms, glosses, and lipsticks to count, I’m very intentional about keeping my lips covered and moisturized. Fortunately, my lips rarely crack. However, without fail, after long periods of wearing vibrant lip products, the pigment of my lips start to alter, turning my naturally rose colored lips to an unhealthy grey. Usually, I’ll spend a week or two abstaining from obsessively applying lipstick and the natural pigment will start to come back. Until next time that is. As it turns out there is a name for this type of discoloration — it’s lip hyperpigmentation.
“Lips are covered with thin, delicate skin that is a window to the blood vessels below, giving them their pink color,” says Dr. Susan Cox, M.D, academic dermatologist for Higher Education Skincare. “While most of the skin on our face, except our eyelids, is covered with about 16 layers of cells, our lips are only covered with three to five layers. This means that this thin skin is more vulnerable to the effects of sun, pollution, aging, and drying.”
This vulnerability means that your lips are highly susceptible to hyperpigmentation from these types of external stressors. However, hyperpigmentation is not to be confused with anemia — a blood disorder that affects blood cells and a cause of pale or loss of color in the lips. Rather, hyperpigmentation is, “spots or patches that are darker than the surrounding areas and is an indication of sun damage, dryness or lack of hydration, smoking, or endocrine and hormone imbalance,” says Dr. Hope Mitchell, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Mitchell Dermatology in Ohio. Lip hyperpigmentation is quite common, and fortunately, a harmless skin issue to manage.
So how do you restore your natural lip color from obsessive-lipstick-syndrome or other external factors? Ahead, discover the sources of lip hyperpigmentation and how to treat and prevent it, according to dermatologists.
What Is Lip Hyperpigmentation?
The skin on our bodies, including the lips, has a protective barrier that protects our cells against environmental stressors (think dirt, pollution, oil, and debris) and moisture loss. Because the skin on our lips is so much thinner, the barrier is not as successful in holding the moisture needed for pigmentation and healthy-looking lips. Loss of moisture and external factors can lead to lip hyperpigmentation, aka dark or discolored lips due to excess melanin production.
The lip skin also has fewer melanocytes (melanin-producing pigment cells) making it easier to see the blood vessels in lighter skin (and harder in darker skin). People with darker skin have more melanosomes, the storage and transport of melanin. “The darker the skin, the more melanocytes,” says Erica Herrel, Head of Research and Development for Merle Norman Cosmetics, “So, the range can be from extremely light skin (low melanin) to super dark (high melanin).” The number of cells that you have will determine the natural pigmentation of your lips. It’s when those external factors cause problems that the natural color will be altered — making your pout look grey, dark, and generally blah.
Dryness in particular is enemy number one when it comes tp lip pigmentation issues. “[Hyperpigmentation] can be worsened or exacerbated by lip licking, which interestingly, many people think will help the dryness but it does not,” Dr. Mitchell says. Saliva contains digestive enzymes — the most common ones being amylase and maltase — which wear down the skin on the lips. “When your lips are dry, you will be more inclined to lick them, which increases saliva enzymes,” says Dr. Jeannette Graf, board-certified dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. However, saliva enzymes break down lip color and will make lips more vulnerable to dry air — creating more opportunity for hyperpigmentation to occur.
What Factors Impact Lip Pigmentation?
There are several causes for hyperpigmentation: sun exposure, smoking, diet, and cosmetic products being the main ones in addition to general dehydration.
“Sun damage and aging can lead to paler lips due to dryness, poor circulation, as well as fine lines and wrinkles due to loss of underlying collagen and elastin,” says Dr. Cox. To prevent this, your sun care routine needs to apply to not only your face but your lips as well. Remember, “pigmentation from sun damage will always return if not treated and sun protection isn’t used,” says celebrity aesthetician, Joshua Ross of SkinLab.
Diet plays into hyperpigmentation as well. Since caffeine is a diuretic, it can dehydrate the lips, especially if you’re someone who drinks multiple cups of coffee or caffeinated tea throughout the day. In addition to avoiding caffeine and drinking the recommended daily amount of water (about 11 cups per day for adult women), Dr. Mitchell suggests “consuming fruits and vegetables with high water content as it has molecules that can help deliver water to the cells efficiently.” Hydration will help fight against the external factors and maintain your natural lip color and prevent that unwanted dullness.
Certain cosmetics like vibrant, matte lipsticks are drying and can also lead to hyperpigmentation of the lips. “Persistent dryness or chapped lips can be irritating and can cause release of more melanin and further worsen the pigment,” Dr. Sunitha Posina, M.D., board-certified Internist in New York City tells TZR. She suggests looking for ingredients with vitamin E, arbutin, azeloyl glycine, antioxidants, and petroleum when you notice discoloration, to lock in moisture and protect the barrier.
Luckily, if hyperpigmentation was caused by cosmetic application, it will typically resolve on its own, over time. “In general, depending on the treatment pigmentation, the lips can start to lighten within a few weeks, up to a few months,” says Ross.
How To Treat & Prevent Lip Hyperpigmentation
The good news: regardless of the root cause, lip hyperpigmentation can be corrected.
According to Ross, “Dry, dead skin will have a white cast, which can make the lips appear pale.” To combat that, all the experts recommend exfoliation, as it “helps skin turn over and helps speed up skin lightening during treatment,” says Herrel. “By removing the dead skin cells, exfoliation allows better penetration of products with active ingredients that fade pigmentation,” Dr. Mitchell explains.
Dr. Cox recommends weekly exfoliating with something very mild like a coconut oil mixed with brown sugar, with gentle pressure. “The lips will readily absorb a [moisturizing] product at this time so it’s important to keep it clean and natural,” she says.
With that being said, according to Lauren Jin, founder of CLE Cosmetics, over exfoliating your skin can cause irritation and redness, but for the lips especially (because that skin is so delicate) you’re at greater risk for micro abrasions with too frequent or too aggressive of exfoliation. To keep your lips healthy and their natural color vibrant, Jin recommends a deep exfoliation once a week, followed by a lip oil or balm throughout the day.
Hydration and moisture are also paramount. Dr. Cox encourages products loaded with hyaluronic acid, which will attract and hold moisture in the lips. To help your lips get the full benefit of a hydrating or moisturizing product, “A retinol product may be used on the lips every few nights, [which can also] help to repair sun damage and encourage the growth of new collagen and improve circulation,” she notes, all of which will help you to maintain you natural lip pigment and overall lip health.
As with anything in skin care, make sure you are checking the ingredients of the products you’re using on your lips. “When considering lips products, we advise to avoid mineral oils that can give a sensation of hydration on the short term but on the long range would dry out your lips because they create an occlusive film on the lips,” says Clara Croux, product development manager at typology. Additionally, all the experts also recommend avoiding alcohols, menthols, and phenols, as they can cause further irritation and in some cases, remove the outer layers of the skin leaving lips unprotected and susceptible to damaging external factors.
Case in point: “Most of us will experience some loss of pigment, thinning and wrinkling of our lips over the years but we can try to combat this with sunscreen, antioxidants, moisture, and making sure we are prioritizing regular exercise, good hydration, and a healthy diet,” Dr. Cox tells TZR. With these tips, plus a few lifestyle adjustments (less caffeine, plenty of sun protection, drinking more water, and cleansing dirt or pollution off at the end of the day) you’ll have your beautiful natural lip pigment back in no time.
If you need a few expert recommendations to keep your lips happy and moisturized, check out their five picks below.
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