Lip treatments are big business in the beauty industry. From lip filler to lip threading, countless brands and aestheticians have shown us how we can plump, smooth and hydrate our lips. But recently, a new treatment has emerged which specifically targets women of colour. Enter: lip lightening.
What is lip lightening?
Head to Instagram and you’ll spot countless clips and reels showing skin experts helping women to remove their lip pigmentation, whether that’s via tattoos or topical, pigmentation-reducing ingredients often sold in kits, which can be purchased from clinics and salons. Dr Vanita Rattan, founder of The Hyperpigmentation Clinic, recently launched a DIY lip hyperpigmentation kit. It has proven to be incredibly popular, selling out within 48 hours. “We had no idea what the demand would be,” Dr Rattan tells R29, “but people of colour will know that hyperpigmentation can be quite distressing and affect your confidence.”
Of course, it must be stressed that lip pigmentation is normal. According to consultant dermatologist Dr Hope Mitchell, just like any area of the body, our lips can be affected by hyperpigmentation, too. “Any trauma can lead to inflammation which will produce excess melanin,” Dr Mitchell says. “Common causes are genetics, smoking, excessive dryness, UV exposure or chemical irritants.” Dr Mitchell explains that tyrosinase is the main enzyme responsible for pigment production, and tyrosinase inhibitors are the most common ingredients used to treat unwanted pigmentation. “They include hydroquinone, arbutin, L-ascorbic acid, kojic acid and tranexamic acid,” she explains.
Is lip lightening uncovering the beauty industry’s colourism?
Unsurprisingly, lightening the lips with a hyperpigmentation kit or tattoo raises concerns of colourism. “Lips are a highly emotive beauty subject and for many years, Black people have been ridiculed and caricatured for the size and colour of theirs,” says consultant dermatologist Dr Mary Sommerlad. She adds that only in recent years, with the rise of lip filler, have fuller lips been seen as an attractive feature in Western societies. “As a dark skinned woman myself, I find it extremely problematic that lightening the lips appears to be normalised. Colourism is real and causes undue misery, especially in darker skinned women.”
Medical aesthetician and skin specialist Bianca Estelle, who is Black, says that to some extent, removing lip pigmentation is a form of skin lightening. Conforming to European beauty standards is a widespread issue which has permeated Black and Asian communities for years, which Estelle says she has witnessed in her practice. “I believe that the popularity of such treatments is linked to colourism and certainly to a Eurocentric aesthetic ideal.” She continues: “Sadly, in many cultures, there is still a projected preference to women with lighter complexions.” But Estelle says that lip treatments such as these can be differentiated based on how the pigmentation was caused. “If the pigmentation was formed as a result of sunburn or smoking, then I wouldn’t class the treatment as skin lightening.”
Dr Sommerlad has concerns, given that there is no mention of lightening kits in particular being suitable only for those who want to balance out their lip tone due to hyperpigmentation caused by a skin issue. “As a dark skinned Black woman with deeply pigmented lips, my first question is: why? Is this treating post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation after a disease like lichen planus, in which case patients should be managed by a consultant dermatologist? Or is this aesthetic, which opens up a whole can of worms?”
Teni Giokabari, cofounder of online retailer for women of colour, Coco + Spice, knows of several people who have wanted to lighten their lips. “Most have wanted lipstick colours to look more vivid on their lips, like the swatch,” she tells me, adding that those who have desired lighter lips have also already lightened their skin in other areas. “I have an ‘each to their own’ mentality. If it improves your mental wellbeing then I say go for it, but I have a problem with the social implications of wanting to be lighter, more pink or anything linked to anti-Blackness,” she says.
Is lip lightening safe?
Dr Sommerlad says she is alarmed that tyrosinase inhibitors are often described as ‘risk-free’ in the industry, as they can cause irritation, which may lead to inflammation and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, darkening the skin further. “There are no health benefits to having lighter lips, so I would assume the purpose is purely aesthetic,” Dr Sommerlad adds. “When it comes to aesthetic procedures, the first question I ask clients is: why do you want the treatment? Is it for themselves or is it to please a partner, an employer or a social group?”
In the US, cosmetic tattoos are most popular to neutralise and lighten pigmented lips. More commonly known as ‘lip blushing‘, the treatment is a form of semi-permanent makeup, which aesthetic experts claim can help conceal blue or purple colours in the lips. Depending on the client’s goal, colour can be deposited either to lighten the lips or to add shape and dimension.
Dr Sommerlad says that although cosmetic tattoos are highly popular, she is worried by the concept of tattooing the lips to look lighter. “People don’t often know that tattoos can cause serious complications,” she says. “Granulomas, which are lumps, can form and become permanent, and blood-borne infections can occur if equipment is not sterilised correctly.” Dr Sommerlad adds that she would question why someone is seeking permanently lighter lips via a tattoo. “Tattoos are permanent. If you decide you don’t like the outcome, unlike filler, Botox or a fake tan, it is difficult to reverse. Living with a permanent alteration to your lips that you don’t like is distressing.”
Education is key when it comes to aesthetic treatments
Dr Mitchell, who is Black, disagrees that the lip lightening trend is linked to colourism. “My community over here does not discuss it as so,” she tells R29. “We certainly aren’t afraid to perform or recommend this treatment when in the hands of a professionally trained medical provider.” Ultimately, as with other beauty treatments that open up controversial dialogue, it’s crucial to educate rather than dismiss lip lightening.
Estelle says that skin lightening is deeply entrenched within some cultures and her primary role is advising clients on what is safe and effective. “My concern would be for the safety of these treatments and whether women of colour are visiting an experienced semi-permanent makeup artist that is skilled in treating darker skin types.” She explains that failure to find someone with the necessary qualifications or skill set can be disastrous and lead to many skin issues, including the area becoming more pigmented or even scarred. “It’s better to have safe options, advice and open conversations, rather than referring to treatments and products as taboo. This risks more damage to people’s skin for lack of education.”
Although the phrase “my lips but better” is ever-popularised, perhaps we need to question the lengths we’ll go to in pursuit of the perfect pout. Dr Sommerlad has the last word. “Lips are not just a crucial part of our mouth but also part of our identity,” she says. “We should never alter our appearance to conform to someone else’s beauty standard.”