Chances are, you're already familiar with the myriad benefits that retinol has to offer. Its ability to boost collagen and resurface skin has made it a must-have in any good anti-aging facial or body-care routine, but if you aren't yet using the powerful ingredient on your lips (yes, your lips), you're missing out.
Because the skin on your lips is ultra-thin (more on that later), it's more prone to damage—meaning that it will start to show signs of aging more quickly than other spots on your body. And while it may sound bonkers to use such an intense ingredient in such a delicate area, derms promise that retinol lip balm can make a world of difference in maintaining a healthy appearance on your pout. Keep scrolling about what you need to know about adding yet another skin-enhancing retinol step into your routine.
How our lips age
Simply as a side-effect of living a normal day-to-day life, our lips are exposed to various factors (both internal and external) that contribute to the breakdown of healthy skin components—like collagen, hyaluronic acid, and elastin.
"Sun damage, repeated lip muscle contraction from smoking, using straws (puckering), as well as the natural process of aging cause the loss of subcutaneous tissue, leading to thinner and drier-looking lips,” says Jaimie DeRosa, MD, a double board-certified plastic surgeon. She explains that because the skin and mucosa in the area are thin (similar to the skin on the eyelids and neck), they’re more prone to damage, it's one of the first places to show signs of aging.
With that in mind, our lips undergo a variety of changes as we age, including “thinning, loss of volume, downturned corners of the mouth, vertical pleats from the skin surrounding the lips, and dryness or chapping,” says Michele Koo, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon. Additionally, you may notice vertical lines that extend into the pink part of the lips and an overall loss of color and volume.
Adding a retinol lip balm into your routine
As mentioned, retinol is lauded for its ability to stimulate cellular turnover (aka it brings healthy, new skin cells to the surface to replace dead, dull ones) and boost collagen. Thanks to these skin-enhancing superpowers, the ingredient can provide multiple benefits for the lips, such as improving texture, reducing the visibility of fine lines and wrinkles, and increasing collagen production through stimulating cell turnover. It can also exfoliate and remove dead skin cells, resulting in softer and smoother lips. On top of that, “a retinol can help to reduce pigmentation changes,” adds Dr. DeRosa.
If you want to reap the benefits of retinol for your lips, both pros say it’s critically important to invest in a retinol lip balm that’s specifically formulated for the area (in other words, don’t just slather your retinol serum on your mouth). “As the lip mucosa is thinner than the surrounding facial skin, it's more susceptible to irritation or flakiness when exposed to a retinol, similar to what can happen if a retinol product creeps onto the eyelids,” says Dr. DeRosa.
Before investing in a product, you’ll want to double-check the label to ensure it has a low concentration of retinol and includes plenty of nourishing and hydrating ingredients to offset potential irritation (thankfully, all of the products listed below fit the bill). Dr. DeRosa suggests choosing a retinol lip mask that contains a gentler version of the vitamin A derivative (like Retinyl Palmitate) or a plant-based retinol alternative, like bakuchiol. She also recommends looking for a formula that contains hydrating ingredients, like hyaluronic acid, so the retinol won’t dry out your lips.
How to use retinol lip balm
Most retinol lip balms contain a low enough concentration of retinoid that they won’t burn or irritate the lips. "To be safe, it's best to apply a small test patch on the corner of the lips before using the product more widely," says Dr. Koo. If there is no irritation after the recommended time of application, you're good to use it all over.
Retinol is typically a no-go during the day becaus it makes skin more sun sensitive and breaks down (aka becomes less effective) when it’s exposed to UV rays. Dr. DeRosa says it’s totally fine to wear retinol lip balm during daylight hours, “but you have to be super careful about SPF, since your lips will be more susceptible to burns." Dr. Koo recommends topping off your retinol lip balm with an SPF 30 (yes, even at night) to ensure proper protection. Be sure to wait a few minutes for your retinoid to soak in, then layer on a broad-spectrum physical sunscreen, which will sit on top of your lips instead of soaking into them.
Shop retinol lip balm
Now that you know the "why" and "how" of adding a retinol lip balm into your routine, shop the best products to help you take the plunge below.
Trade your usual lipstick for this tinted lip oil, which offers a gorgeous swath of color in addition to its skin benefits. Retinol is complemented by a proprietery lip-plumping ingredient that improves the texture, shape, and softness of the lips, plus an entire laundry list of vitamins (B5, C, E), botanicals, and lipid-rich plant oils. It comes in six high-shine finishes.
For those who are looking for a plant-based retinol equivalent, try Bare Minerals Ageless Phyto Retinol Lip Balm. “It is vegan and made with a retinol alternative as well as hyaluronic acid for hydration and rosemary extract as an anti-aging antioxidant,” says Dr. DeRosa.
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