We can thank millennial icon Kylie Jenner for recharging our obsession with a plumper pout. While Jenner ultimately copped to getting lip injections, her lip kit sold out more than once in mere seconds, and her seriously sought-after kisser inspired the ill-thought out Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge. (Don’t try it at home!)
Full, voluptuous lips are certainly considered desirable and have been for eons. They’re thought to communicate fertility, according to Chicago facial plastic surgeon Steven Dayan, MD. While injections can provide a plumper pout that lasts for up to one year, there are a host of topical lip plumpers on the market at different price points that promise lip service sans surgery.
But do lip plumpers work and, if they are strong enough to add volume without needles, are they even safe?
Here’s the skinny: Most lip plumpers such as DuWop Venom Gloss and Smashbox O-Plump Intuitive Lip Plumper deliver at least a modest boost. “Most lip plumpers work by causing irritation to lip skin, resulting in swelling and and increased blood flow to the area,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “The effects may last a maximum of few hours.” (The increased blood flow enhances our lips already reddish hue too). These plumpers likely tingle as they begin to take effect which is actually the irritation in action. Some common irritants/ingredients include: ginger, wintergreen, cinnamon, peppermint, cayenne pepper, menthol, and camphor.
Other lip plumpers, including dr. macrene 37 Actives High Performance Anti-Aging and Filler Lip Treatment contain ingredients such as hyaluronic acid that pull moisture into the lips . (Yes, this is the very same molecule found in a many volumizing soft tissue fillers). Then there are formulas such as City Cosmetics Advanced Lip Plumper Formula that work by boosting collagen production and preventing its breakdown. (Collagen was one of the first materials injected into lips for enhancement, but it fell out favor due to an epidemic of trout-pouts that resulted from overfilling.) Some lip plumpers include ingredients that add shine, which also makes lips look bigger and brighter.
Two to three hours is the maximum effect you’ll get from these lip plumpers. Other formulas may not last as long. One study of 60 women who applied a ginger-infused lip plumper found that the volumizing effects kicked in within 15 minutes and remained for close to 30 before petering out. These findings were published in November 2016 issue of the International Journal of Cosmetic Science.
But irritation, though usually mild, can be painful for some people, adds dermatologist Michael Gold, MD, founder and medical director of Gold Skin Care Center, Advanced Aesthetics Medical Spa, The Laser & Rejuvenation Center, and Tennessee Clinical Research Center in Nashville. “There is potential to have some sort of allergic reaction so be very careful,” he says.
The only way to choose a winner is through trial and error. Apply a little gloss on your forearm to see if you have any reaction—such as itching or pain—before you buy, he says.
And it may not be you who has the reaction. A young boy developed an itchy spot on his right cheek following a kiss from his mother. She had applied a lip plumper with a cayenne pepper derivative an hour earlier. This case is highlighted in a review study in the September 2016 issue of Contact Dermatitis.
Some lip plumpers can be overly drying to the already hypersensitive thin lip skin. Make sure your plumper contains a moisturizer such as shea butter, vitamin E, or natural oils to prevent chapped lips.
“Lip plumpers are very good for the short term,” says Dr. Gold. The best lip plumpers can also give you an idea what a longer lasting boost may look like.
For more permanent plumping, you may consider a filler like Juvederm Volbella, Juvederm, or Restylane Silk. “These hyaluronic acid fillers can enhance structure and volume of the lips,” Dr. Zeichner says.
But, he cautions, bigger is not always better. “Make sure to visit a board certified cosmetic dermatologist to make sure you get natural-looking lips that fit your face.”