Lip Plumpers: Pumped-Up Lips or Deflated Hopes?

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The popularity of luscious-lipped Hollywood stars has skyrocketed ever since Angelina Jolie's career took off, and subsequently, women have been on the lookout for products to create fuller lips without the injections performed by dermatologists or plastic surgeons.
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Of course, the cosmetics industry wasn't going to let this trend pass without launching products claiming to achieve "injectable-like" results, so it's no surprise that many brands offer some type of lip-plumping product, whether it is a balm, gloss, or something simply named "Lip Plumper."

These products surely may seem tempting, but they are really just a waste of money. Lip-plumper formulas "work" because they contain irritating ingredients that temporarily make your lips swell, an enlarging effect. The problem is that the irritation they cause is really bad for your lips, so the short-term benefit (which is minimal at best) doesn't outweigh the long-term negative effects.

Here's what you need to know about lip plumpers so you can protect your precious pout!

How Do Lip Plumpers Work?

Almost every lip-plumper formula we've reviewed over the years has one thing in common: irritating ingredients. Irritation and the subsequent inflammation, which leads to swelling, is what produces the fuller-lipped look you get from these products. Unfortunately, these products' irritating ingredients are hurting your lips.

A lot of lip plumpers actually burn and sting within seconds of application, which is a clear signal that something is wrong. Although the damage doesn't always show up on the surface immediately, in the long run you are speeding up the aging process and setting yourself up for chronically dry, potentially thinner lips.

The most common irritating ingredients in lip plumpers are cinnamon, ginger oil, peppermint oil, spearmint extract, menthol, capsicum extract, eugenol, and pepper resin. Swelling, caused by irritation and inflammation, is the most obvious side effect, and while it may puff up your lips for a bit, the results aren't going to last for more than an hour or two—and more often than not, the results are disappointing. It's a plain and simple fact: There are no ingredients that can deliver results that are as voluminous or long-lasting as lip injections.

We are not saying that lip injections are the only route to go if you want fuller lips, but trying to achieve that effect with lip-plumping products that don't work doesn't make sense either. If you decide to undergo a cosmetic corrective procedure, such as collagen injections or other dermal fillers that enlarge lips, make sure it's from a doctor whose work you've seen and trust. Heaven forbid you overdo it like Meg Ryan or Lisa Rinna, to name just a few celebrities who've over-inflated their lips well beyond the norm. But, when done right, lip injections can add a soft, beautiful fullness, temporarily (about 3 months to a year), semi-permanently (18 months to 3 years), or permanently (5 years or longer) depending on the type of procedure you go with.

All the lip-plumping ingredients mentioned above make dry, chapped lips worse, lead to collagen breakdown, and weaken your lips' vulnerable protective barrier. That's what irritating ingredients do to skin, and even more so to your lips, which are the most vulnerable exposed areas of your body. You may like the temporary effect of lip plumpers, but, ultimately, it's not worth the tradeoff.

What About Collagen and Peptides in Lip Plumpers?

Many lip plumpers claim that the collagen they contain is what causes your lips to appear fuller. Often, the collagen is said to be encapsulated in "microspheres," or is said to be made very small so it penetrates lips better. The truth is that the collagen in lip plumpers, whether it's micronized or encapsulated, cannot fuse with or build up the collagen in your lips—it just isn't physiologically possible, and there isn't a shred of research proving otherwise.

As for peptides, although they theoretically function as cell-communicating ingredients and help bind moisture to lips, there are no peptides or peptide blends that add fullness to your lips or increase their diameter. Once again, there is no research showing they work.

The most illogical part of the claims about collagen and peptides in lip-plumping products is: How would the peptide or collagen know to build collagen evenly around your lips, and would applying it mean your lips bloat up beyond what you want? And what if you accidently get the collagen or peptide on areas of your face you don't want to get bigger? Thankfully, these products don't work, so that's not an issue, but the fact is: Nothing will happen, good or bad.

What Can You Really Do to Give Your Lips a Boost?

First and foremost, you need to protect your lips from the aging, lip-shrinking properties of sun damage. Sunscreen ingredients or an opaque lipstick go a long way toward keeping your lips looking and feeling beautiful.

Next, use products that keep your lips moist and reinforce their delicate protective barrier. Water-binding agents like sodium hyaluronate and glycerin can help your lips look slightly fuller, while ingredients like lanolin, castor oil, safflower oil, almond oil, petrolatum, shea butter, and cocoa butter leave lips more supple and smooth.

Just like the skin on the rest of your face, lips benefit from cell-communicating ingredients, skin-identical ingredients, and antioxidants; just don't get wrapped up in the over-the-top claims of miracle ingredients. While it's an added bonus if your lip products contain these types of beneficial ingredients, they rarely are included in amounts sufficient to make much, if any, difference.

Using Makeup for Fuller, Younger-Looking Lips

The tips above will help you make your lips look and feel softer, smoother, and possibly a bit fuller, but we aren't done yet! You can fake your way to fuller lips (and avoid irritation) with a few simple makeup tips:

  • Make thin lips look fuller by using brighter, vivid lip colors that complement your skin tone. Dark shades can make them look smaller than they already are. Avoid brown-based lipsticks, too.
  • Add a touch of a lighter gloss or highlighter in the center of your bottom lip and/or along your cupid's bow to create more depth and volume. Light surfaces reflect, making your lips appear fuller.
  • Cheat your natural lip line with a pencil liner that complements your lipstick and skin tone. This takes practice to master, but essentially you want to ever-so-slightly go beyond the outer line of your natural lip shape to create a more voluminous pout. It helps to do this before you apply your lipstick, but after you've applied foundation. Also, it's important to use a lipliner that isn't overly creamy because otherwise it might bleed into lines.
  • Keep your lips kissably soft and smooth by removing dead skin cells with a lip scrub and applying a moisturizing, long-lasting lip balm every night before going to bed.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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