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Yes, You Should Be Exfoliating Your Lips—Here’s How

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Photo by Marili Forastieri/Getty Images

As much as we love to highlight our lips in makeup looks, we have to admit that sometimes making them look smooth, plump, and perfect can be a struggle. According to Dermatologist Kristina Collins, MD, this is because the skin on our lips is a special type of skin with completely different properties than the face and body.

"The outer layer of skin [the epidermis] is extremely thin on the lips," she says. "Lips also lack melanin and appear pink due to the hue of vessels underlying the very thin skin barrier. And they don't contain hair follicles or oil glands like the rest of the skin. With less effective protective barriers compared to normal skin, lips become dehydrated quickly, making lip skin exquisitely sensitive to the environment, topical products, humidity changes, and UV exposure."

If you're currently dealing with dry, chapped lips, lip exfoliation may be a helpful way to smooth and remove that dry flaky skin. But when not done correctly, this skincare treatment can sometimes do more harm than good. Here's how to do it right — Dr. Collins shares a few lip exfoliation alternatives you may want to try instead.


About the Expert:

Kristina Collins, MD, is a dermatologist and mohs micrographic surgeon and the co-founder and CEO of Austin Skin, a boutique dermatology practice in Austin, TX.

Benefits of Exfoliating Lips

While you should try to avoid overdoing lip exfoliation (aim for about once a week or less), adding this element of lip care to your beauty routine may help them thrive in a number of different ways:

1. It can remove dead skin.

We'll start with the most obvious benefit: If you're recovering from having dry lips and it's left you dealing with dead, flaky skin, applying an exfoliant can help to polish that skin away, leaving you with smoother, softer lips.

2. It will help to hydrate your lips.

Once that dead layer of skin has been exfoliated away, you'll likely find that your lip treatments and any lip moisturizers you apply will be more effective. With that layer of skin out of the way, your lips can really soak up the hydrating benefits of these products.

3. Your lipstick will look better.

Have you ever tried to wear lipstick with chapped, cracked lips? If you have, you probably know that lipstick has a tendency to highlight flaky patches. Exfoliating that skin will prime your lips and result in a smoother lipstick application that lasts longer and wears more evenly throughout the day.

How to exfoliate lips properly

1. Make sure they're clean

Before you begin exfoliating, make sure the lips are free of any makeup like lipstick or lip gloss.

2. Gently exfoliate

Apply enough DIY lip scrub or ready-made lip scrub (more on both of those options below), to coat the lips. Using a super gentle touch, use your finger to massage the scrub in a circular motion around the lips. Being really gentle is important here so that you don't irritate or break this delicate area of skin.

3. Immediately re-hydrate

Once you've massaged scrub all over the lips, wipe off the scrub so that the lips are once again clean. Finally, immediately follow up with lip balm to infuse moisture into freshly exfoliated skin.

Derm-Loved Lip Exfoliation Alternatives

Because of how sensitive the lips are, Dr. Collins admits that lip scrub isn't typically her recommended way to repair chapped lips and flaky skin. "It can be super tempting to want to scrub the dry skin off when lips are chapped but it's usually better to help hydrate the skin rather than create further cracks in the skin or trauma to the skin's protective barrier." Here are a few exfoliation alternatives she recommends:

1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Instead of exfoliating, Dr. Collins likes to focus more on healing through lip hydration. She notes that staying hydrated throughout the day and sleeping with a humidifier can make a huge difference for the lips during the colder months. She also notes that, when looking for lip care products, it's a good idea to go fragrance-free and seek out formulas that feature ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid, hemp seed oil, white petrolatum, dimethicone, and shea butter.

And like all areas of the skin, it's super important to keep this delicate area protected from UV damage. "Lips are SO SUSCEPTIBLE to sun damage as they lack melanin and often get left out of sun protection," Collins says. "I recommend titanium dioxide or zinc oxide-based sunscreens for the lips, as chemical-based sunscreens could cause irritation."

2. Try non-abrasive exfoliants.

If you do want to try exfoliation of some kind, Dr. Collins says, "I actually strongly prefer non-abrasive exfoliants for the lips. Mechanical exfoliants can worsen tiny breaks in the skin and rough up the already delicate protective barrier of the lip. Products with AHAs or papaya enzymes [chemical exfoliants] provide a gentler method of removing dry skin with less damage. It is still important to follow up these methods with instant hydration and barrier protection, particularly with a non-irritating balm."

Collin's final word of advice: "If the lips are not overly dry, sensitive, or chapped then very gentle exfoliation could make them feel extra smooth and soft, but overall, I think hydration is the key to kissable lip care."

DIY Lip Scrub Recipes

If you love DIYing your skincare whenever possible, we have good news: lip scrub is one of the easiest beauty recipes you can make yourself. All you really need is a gentle exfoliant and a moisturizing agent. Here are two combinations to try:

1. Brown sugar (or white sugar) + Honey

Is this the start of a baking recipe or a beauty DIY? It could be both. And considering this is going on the lips, it's actually a good thing that this scrub is delicious enough to eat. While the brown sugar crystals gently exfoliate and slough away dead skin, honey acts as an emollient to moisturize, heal, and protect cracked lips.

Pro tip: The amount of each ingredient you use will vary depending on how much you're making, but in general, you'll want to combine the two together in a ration that creates a grainy paste.

2. Ground coffee beans + Coconut oil 

In this DIY lip scrub recipe, finely ground coffee beans are the exfoliant, while coconut oil hydrates and binds the scrub together. There are a few additional perks of each ingredient though: The caffeine content in the coffee can help to rejuvenate the lips, making them flush with color. And fatty acid-rich coconut oil is also antimicrobial, meaning it can help to protect against harmful microorganisms.

3. Lip balm + Sugar

In a pinch, you can also squeeze out a bit of your favorite lip balm (Aquaphor is Dr. Collin's favorite) onto your finger and mix it with a pinch of sugar for some subtle, quick exfoliation.

6 Lip Scrubs to Try

Not a big DIYer? No problem. There are a number of great, ready-made lip scrubs to choose from. Here are a few of our faves.

1. Best for Everyone: HANALEI COMPANY Sugar Lip Scrub

HANALEI COMPANY Sugar Lip Scrub

Here's a lip scrub that everyone can turn to for a gentle yet effective exfoliation treatment. While Hawaiian sugar crystals remove dead skin cells, fatty acid-rich kukui nut oil teams up with vitamin A and vitamin C to repair chapped lips. Plus, shea butter helps to lock in moisture and preserve the softness in those freshly exfoliated lips.

2. Best Non-Abrasive Lip Exfoliant: FRESH Sugar Smoothing Lip Primer Advanced Therapy

FRESH Sugar Smoothing Lip Primer Advanced Therapy

Courtesy of FRESH

Want to try a lip exfoliant that swaps manual exfoliation for chemical exfoliation? This treatment gently resurfaces this delicate area of skin without causing any additional damage by using AHAs instead of sugar granules. It also features hyaluronic acid to attract and maintain moisture as it resurfaces.

3. Best for Mess-Free Application: MILK MAKEUP Kush Lip Scrub

MILK MAKEUP Kush Lip Scrub

Courtesy of MILK MAKEUP

Whether you're planning to pack a lip scrub in your carry-on or you just dislike how messy potted lip scrubs can get, here's a neat, nourishing solution. Swipe on this clean lip scrub just like you would a lipstick: as you swipe it back-and-forth, natural sugar crystals and hemp stem exfoliators slough away dead skin while jojoba oil and olive oils condition the lips.

4. Best Lip Primer: ILIA Balmy Nights Lip Exfoliator

ILIA Balmy Nights Lip Exfoliator

Courtesy of ILIA

Here's another mess-free lip exfoliant, except this one swaps sugar crystals for a different kind of exfoliant. This clean formula from the luxe beauty brand ILIA uses volcanic stone as its gentle exfoliant The natural exfoliant is paired with shea butter and jojoba oil for a simple yet super effective lip treatment that perfectly primes and preps the lips for richly colored lipsticks.

5. Best for Sensitive Skin: ECO LIPS Lip Scrub

ECO LIPS Lip Scrub

Ideal for sensitive skin, this hydrating lip exfoliator is so safe for your lips, it’s actually edible—but we recommend letting it work its magic instead of eating it, though. You’ll find that dead skin doesn’t stand a chance against this sugar lip scrub, which uses brown sugar crystals to slough off dry skin while a blend of jojoba oil, coconut oil, and olive oil moisturize and nourish. The result: smooth lips that last.

6. Best for Mature Skin: KISMET Buff All-Natural Lip Scrub in Bright & Bubbly

KISMET Buff All-Natural Lip Scrub in Bright & Bubbly

Looking for an anti-aging lip mask that will also prolong the life of your lipstick? Look no further than this conditioning lip treatment that nourishes flaky, dry lips with shea butter and vitamin C while also delivering brightening and anti-aging benefits. Use it once a week to keep your lips perfectly primed for lipstick or lip gloss.

Want to browse even more formulas? See how these compare to a few of our other faves in our blog post on the 17 best lip scrubs.

Want to discover all the best products for your softest lips ever? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.

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About the author
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Cortney Clift
Cortney is a New York-based freelance writer who has written about beauty and wellness for more than six years. She was previously the senior writer and special projects editor at Brit + Co where she covered a wide range of news and lifestyle topics.
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Article Last Updated October 12, 2021 12:00 AM