Dear Daniela: Will A Retinol Lip Treatment Make My Lips Soft, Smooth & Plump?

Illustrated by Olivia Santner
Dear Daniela,
Should I start using a retinol lip product? I know my skin really loves retinol and it’s definitely made a difference on my fine lines and blemishes, but I don’t really want to go through all the sensitivity and flaking on my lips. Will it be worth it?
Lara, 29
Sometimes I get a question at exactly the right time, and this is one of them. This week, I’ve been thinking about my lips a lot, as after a whirlwind trip to Morocco where I slept about four hours and apparently drank zero water, mine decided to be the Sorest They’ve Ever Been. I’m not sure if they’d gotten sunburned or just dehydrated, but they were swollen, red and flaming hot to the touch. I’ve tried essentially every single lip product on the market to heal them (more on that later) and like you, I was stumped about whether retinol would help.
I asked Dr Nima, who specialises in all things lippy for his take. He explained: "[Retinol] products are usually advocated for use as an anti-ageing ingredient for the face to help eradicate fine lines and wrinkles. Due to the fact that retinol may potentially cause irritation and flaking of the lips, a retinol-based lip product may cause some level of discomfort." He didn’t seem particularly convinced that the potential anti-ageing benefits of retinol around the lip area would outweigh the potential risks of dryness and flaking, and while I’m sure most retinol lip products have been formulated not to be irritating, it begs the question: Is the retinol going to be strong enough to do anything? Also, generally speaking, you apply retinol once a day in the evening, go to bed, then load up on SPF the next day. So constantly reapplying it? I’m not sure, and neither was Dr Nima.
Dr Nima added: "Depending on the strength of retinol used, irritation and flaking can be caused, which is usually the opposite of what you want from lip care. You want soothing and hydration." Of course, it does warrant a case-by-case analysis of these products as I’m not privy to the exact formulations, but I’m not going to be rushing out to buy one. To circle back to my own lip dilemma, and answer the question underneath your question – "What do my lips really want?" – I’d say this: Make sure you use a good SPF lip balm when you’re in strong sunlight, like the Ultrasun SPF 30 Lip Protection & Care, to avoid losing collagen and elastin to UV damage, and also to shield against dryness and sensitivity.
In terms of balms, I have tried so many – and have one in every single bag or pocket I own to prove it. But my favourite for really dry lips? Eucerin Dry Skin Intensive Lip Balm brought my lips back to life at their most delicate, much more so than many products three times the price. I adore a thick layer of Lanolips before bed, and buff mine smooth in the AM with Make Beauty Sea Salt Exfoliator, but the essentials are the Eucerin and SPF.
Illustrated by Olivia Santner
Otherwise, heed Dr Nima’s advice about general hydration: "The less your water intake, the greater the likelihood of dry lips." And my dentist, Dr Okoye will be fuming if I don’t mention that keeping your teeth and gums healthy can actually help prolong the life of your pout, too. As we age, our teeth and jaw continue to move in a way that can exacerbate the minimisation of the lips, but a good dentist can give you more bespoke advice about that. Don’t smoke (for so many reasons), stay hydrated, and stay protected.
Good luck!
Got a question for our resident beauty columnist Daniela Morosini? No problem, qualm or dilemma is too big, small or niche. Email, including your name and age for a chance to have your question answered. All letters to 'Dear Daniela' become the property of Refinery29 and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

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