Lip Plumpers: Do They Work?

Can you get fuller lips from a tube?

Medically Reviewed by Emmy M. Graber, MD on November 14, 2012
3 min read

Scores of over-the-counter products promise to produce bigger, sexier lips. Do they deliver?

The answer is they can make a temporary difference in how your lips look, but not as much as getting a filler injected by a doctor.

"It makes your lips seem just a little more bee-stung," Hollywood makeup artist Tasha Reiko Brown says.

Tinted or clear, in the form of a gloss, balm, stick, gel, or pot, traditional lip plumpers fatten the lips temporarily -- sometimes by irritating them.

Containing ingredients like cinnamon, ginger mint, wintergreen, or capsicum (the fiery compound in hot peppers) they boost blood flow to the lips, leading to mild swelling and redness.

"These can give you a temporary enhancement that might last a couple of hours," says dermatologist Patricia Farris, MD, of Tulane University School of Medicine.

It's these ingredients that also cause the telltale tingle or stinging. Although some people find that sensation uncomfortable, others welcome it as evidence that the plumper is working.

That burn, along with the high shine of many of the plumping products, may be what leads to the illusion of a fuller pout, even if it can't be measured by calipers.

"In general, I'm not a big fan of any ingredient that irritates the skin," dermatologist Paul M. Friedman, MD, says. "If you apply too much of these plumpers and use them too frequently they can potentially cause dryness and scaling."

Still, he says, "I haven't seen any problems in my practice and my wife uses them herself. They can provide a short-lived instant gratification."

Brown occasionally uses a lip plumper for special events, layering it as a primer underneath lipstick and gloss. And if a client wants the fullest lips possible, she augments these with a dab of shimmery eye shadow or highlighter dabbed on the center of the lips.

If plumping glosses provide on-the-spot pout enhancement, a newer generation of lip plumpers promises to deliver more lasting results.

Sometimes sold in two-step sets with a cosmetic plumper, these treatment products contain ingredients such as peptides, marine collagen, and human growth factors. Used regularly, the manufacturers claim, these products will stimulate your lips to produce more pout-boosting collagen and elastin.

"These won't give you an Angelina Jolie mouth," Farris says. "You have to be born with that. But they might have some therapeutic benefits."

At the very least, she says, many of the lip-conditioning plumpers contain ingredients that help lips retain moisture.

"That hydration alone can improve lines and wrinkles and may give you a bit more fullness," Farris says.

They may also contain hyaluronic acids, which increase lip volume by pulling moisture from the environment or trapping water that would otherwise evaporate from the skin.

Makeup artists sometimes prep lips for lipstick by rubbing a wet, nubby washcloth across the mouth.

Lip exfoliators are a convenient update on this old trick. Sold by themselves or with either cosmetic or therapeutic lip plumpers, these exfoliators use gentle ingredients like sugar or poppy seeds or mild acid exfoliants to buff away dry skin. That gentle scrubbing amplifies the natural color of lips and provides a smooth, crease-free surface so that the application of a plumping lip gloss creates an even more heightened illusion of voluptuous lips.

The bottom line, says Farris, is lip plumpers may slightly enhance your lips.

"Women need to be realistic in what they can expect from these products," Friedman says. In other words, these products won't enlarge your lips the way a $400 injection of a filler will.

Farris suggests choosing a plumper with SPF since your lips also need sun protection.

"Our lips are always exposed to the environment," she says, "but we generally don't think about protecting them."