The year is 2010, and I’m 16 years old. My mom is studying a picture one of my school friends has painted of me. "It’s great," she coos. "They’ve really captured your lopsided smile!" Just like realizing that you’ve had lipstick on your teeth all day and feeling a wave of retroactive embarrassment, I was suddenly painfully aware of a physical flaw I never knew I had. Of course, other insecurities came to the fore over the years — is my nose massive? Are my eyes too wide-set? Will my boobs ever catch up with my ass? — but I always, always, came back to my lips. My bottom lip is happily full, but my top lip is smaller than I’d like. When your beauty icons are as pillowy-pouted as Lana Del Rey and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, anything short of that pales in comparison.
I, like the rest of the world, only really wised up to lip fillers circa Kylie Jenner. Prior to that, Goldie Hawn’s turn as Elise Elliot and her disastrous ‘work’ in The First Wives Club was enough for me to file fillers away as something that always goes horribly wrong. But with the proliferation of more natural-looking fillers and more transparency on social media (with a few taps, you can watch endless Hyperlapses of lips being prodded with a needle and slowly expanded), I started to consider them. I even had a consultation with Dr. Kambiz Golchin, a plastic surgeon, but stopped short of going under the needle. Weirdly, the pain doesn’t bother me — it’s the fact that I might like them. At anywhere from $270-ish to $1,200 a pop, and factoring in the need for a top-up every six to nine months, it’s an expensive habit to begin in your early 20s.
Luckily, there are a few alternatives that suit cash-strapped needle-phobes. After a MakeUpAlley deep-dive into the top-rated offerings, I started with Dior Addict Lip Maximizer. It is beautifully packaged, left my lips soft and glossy and healthy-looking, but there was no discernible improvement in volume. Next, I tried NIOD Lip Bio-Lipid Concentrate, which smelt... funny. Not bad per se, but overly sweet in an artificial way. Nevertheless, I smoothed some over my lips and almost instantly felt a telltale tingle. Minutes later, my lips were plumped but slightly red around the lip line (something that persisted no matter how careful I was when I applied it), meaning you don’t want to apply this too close to leaving the house. Too Faced’s Lip Injection has some breathless reviews online, but I found it unbearably painful (and I like to think my threshold is pretty high after years of waxing, threading, and gruesome sports massages). I couldn’t tell if it plumped my lips – I had to wipe it off after less than three minutes. Buxom’s Full-On Lip Polish definitely temporarily inflated my lips and the tingling was minimal, but the glossy finish confused me. I wanted something that would make my lips look fuller so I could apply lipstick over the top, so the stickiness was a problem.
Plus, considering they all seem to spread beyond your lip line means you can’t exactly throw it on as you head out the door. I applied mine first thing in the morning and again before bed. I tried a few more, which I found to be largely unremarkable – think the slight burn of Carmex, a lick of hydration, but no noticeable plumping.
"Most lip plumpers work not unlike the way spicy food does," explained Dr. David Jack, an aesthetic doctor in London. "Capsaicin from chillis, caffeine, menthol, or something like that is used to essentially irritate the lips, which drives blood and fluid to the area and gives you a plumped effect. The irritation releases chemicals called histamine and prostaglandin, and as the skin on the lips is so thin and the blood vessels are so visible, you get an immediately noticeable effect." While largely safe, Dr. Jack did warn me off using something that’s essentially causing inflammation regularly, meaning maybe I stick to jalapeño margaritas rather than lip gloss in the future.
Undeterred, I set my sights on something slightly more surgical. Through word of mouth I’d heard of a treatment called The Perk, which promised the effects of fillers for a fraction of the cost – and the longevity. (To find a location near you, click here.) Essentially, it uses focused suction on your lips for a temporary plumping effect, followed by a take-home peppermint treatment to add further hydration and perkiness. Which is why, one Friday afternoon, I had my lips gently hoovered by a friendly lady with an excellent set of lash extensions. It takes less than 10 minutes, doesn’t hurt at all, and your lips are noticeably fuller afterwards, albeit temporarily. I asked my aesthetician to focus the majority of the suction on my upper lip to balance it out, and it looked lush and plump, though I’m not sure why it’s billed as a once-a-month treatment – I found my lips went back to normal by the end of the weekend. For a special occasion, or to help you get an idea of what your lips will look like with filler, it’s ideal.
Of everything I tried, I would recommend The Perk and NIOD’s Lip Bio-Lipid Concentrate. The effects of the NIOD apparently get even better after 30 days – I’m pushing nine or 10, so I’m curious to see how much more can be done. I still don’t know if I’m going to get my lips done, as I’m worried about falling down a slippery slope I can’t finance quite yet. After all, as I lay on the bed getting my lips suctioned under the harsh strip light, my aesthetician asked gently, "Have you ever thought about Botox?"