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Lip lightening treatments are trending, but are they ethical?

Hyperpigmentation is a major skin concern for women of colour, making lip lightening popular. But what drives people to do it and how safe is it really?

As a beauty editor for well over a decade it doesn’t come as a surprise that my Instagram explore page is filled with beauty content, as what we’re shown is based on what we are liking on a daily basis, and the types of accounts we follow.

I had no complaints when it came to more beauty content, but in a bid to diversify what images I did see, I started following a more diverse range of content creators. However, in the process I’ve found my eyes were opened up to a worrying world of aesthetics treatments that do anything but champion difference.

One such treatment encourages women of colour to lighten the appearance of their lips, and when I first saw these DIY lip lightening tips, recommendations to tattoo pouts pink, and even use skin bleaching topicals I was aghast – where was this desire for a lighter lip colour coming from I wondered? I could only deduce that this stemmed from the rejection that Black and brown is beautiful and that Eurocentric features are still the epitome of beauty.

And despite the ability to understand that lightening ones skin as a person of colour is controversial at best, I caught myself looking at my lip colour for the first time in my life wondering if they were too brown.

Then I saw yet another post extolling the benefits of lip lightening and I wondered what others had to say. There were plenty of comments that mirrored my sentiments, but there were also plenty of comments from Black and brown women saying that their lips had gotten darker over time.

“I see a lot of people complaining of hyperpigmentation at my clinic, and I believe it’s important as a practitioner to listen to their concerns. Lightening is a very charged word, but hyperpigmentation is the number one ageing concern for Black and brown skin and this happens to the skin on the lips too. Conversely, for the lips of our Caucasian counterparts, lines and wrinkles are more prevalent with age. Meaning it’s wise not to jump to conclusions when patients request a lip lightening treatment,” shares EV Expert Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme.

It turns out that there are a number of reasons why hyperpigmentation can occur in the lips, exposure to the sun is most common, but there’s also over exfoliation and dryness due to lip licking. As well as habits like smoking which turns lips darker due to heat exposure and constant pressure on the lips. There are also medical issues like Peutz-Jeghers syndrome and Addison's disease can alter the colour of the lips.

Dr Ejikeme explains that our body has a natural set point of pigment, “so trying to lighten your skin to a shade that’s lighter than your natural set point is a challenge, and not recommended.” However, if you’re simply looking to restore your lips to their natural hue, there are a number of ways to go about it.

“Since when it comes to hyperpigmentation lip licking is one of the most common culprits, simply using a hydrating lip balm offers a marked improvement for most people in as little as four to six weeks. Tyrosinase inhibitors – like kojic acid, hydroquinone, and tranexamic acid – block melanin formation to stop the over production of pigment. While light chemical peels help remove the top layers of skin to reduce hyperpigmentation,” explains Ejikeme.

What all experts warn against is purchasing anything claiming to be prescription strength online. ‘These products are not regulated, are often a mix of multiple different skin lightening ingredients, and using them can have serious consequences. Namely thinning of the skin, irritation and they could even leave the skin blueish grey,’ adds Ejikeme.

So, when it comes to altering the shade of your lips, lightening to fit an outdated ideal should be avoided at all costs, along with the dangerous products that promise to do so. But treating hyperpigmentation to restore your natural lip colour is possible should you wish to do so. However, keep in mind our bodies change as we age, it’s totally normal and whatever you do the most beautiful aesthetic is one that suits your over natural skin tone.

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