Lip Discoloration

The lips are parts of the oral mucosa, forming the outer part of the mouth. The pinkish hue to the lips is due to the natural pigment that is contained in the respective skin, this pigment being known as melanin. It is important to understand that the melanin content at the level of the lips is reduced, this being the reason why the color is pink and not darker in color.

It is possible that the lip tissue suffers from discoloration, the pink/red color turning into a sort of a brown or gray hue. In some cases, a yellowish or bluish discoloration can be present at the level of the lips. There are many causes that can lead to the discoloration of the lips, including mechanical and chemical factors. Disorders of the skin can lead to the lips becoming discolored, as well as various systemic diseases and daily habits. Identifying the correct cause of the lip discoloration is essential, so that it can be corrected or treated. Once the underlying cause is treated, the lip discoloration will most likely disappear on its own.

Causes of Lip Discoloration

These are the most common causes that can cause the lips to become discolored:

  • Anemia
    • Most common cause of lip discoloration (in women)
    • Affects women during the reproductive (fertile) years
    • Iron-deficiency anemia is often identified as the main culprit (reduced amount of hemoglobin in the blood, which gives the natural pink/red color of the lips)
    • If circulatory problems are associated, the lips can turn a bluish hue when exposed to cold temperatures
  • Cyanosis
    • Lack of sufficient oxygen in the blood
    • Most common cause of cyanosis – cardiovascular or pulmonary disease (blood diseases can cause similar problems as well)
    • Physical exercise or cold temperatures aggravate the cyanosis (bluish tinge more obvious at the level of the lips)
    • Treatment for underlying condition necessary
    • Emergency assistance required, if cyanosis is accompanied by dyspnea (difficult breathing), wheezing, loss of consciousness/diminished consciousness, cold and clammy skin
  • Daily habits
    • Chronic smoking – darkening of the lips and also of the inner lining of the mouth (smoker’s melanosis); tobacco chewing – intense redness of the lips (chronic – dark discoloration of the lips)
    • Alcohol abuse – dark spots on the lips (fermentation of acidic substances)
    • Drug abuse (narcotics such as crack cocaine or crystal meth)
    • Dark discoloration of the lips can also be caused by betel leaf and areca nut chewing
  • Lentigo
    • Brown or black spots present on the lips (and on other parts of the body)
    • Often caused by prolonged or chronic exposure to the sun (also known as liver spots or actinic lentigines)
    • May found in association with systemic diseases, such as the Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (non-solar lentigines)
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome
    • Genetic condition – gastrointestinal polyps, the skin and the mucous membranes become excessively pigmented
    • High risk of intestinal cancer
    • Apart from the lentigines that are present at the level of the skin, including the lips, the mucosal lining of the mouth becomes darkened
  • Melasma
    • Hyperpigmentation of the skin (increased melanin deposits)
    • Most common – on skin surfaces exposed to the sun, with a predilection for the forehead and the cheeks
    • May also occur at the level of the lips (especially the upper lip)
    • Symmetrical patches of hyperpigmentation
    • No associated rash or itchiness
  • Dermatitis
    • Most common – contact and atopic dermatitis (allergic element)
    • Often a problem in women, the allergies being caused by the choice of lip care products (lip gloss, lipstick, balms etc.)
    • The lips become darker in color (no other symptoms, such as itchiness, present)
    • Low-quality or expired lip care products can cause such problems
  • Jaundice
    • Yellow discoloration of the skin and eye sclera (excess bilirubin – liver discoloration)
    • The yellow discoloration of the lips can also be present in those who consume excessive quantities of foods that contain beta carotene (such as carrots)
    • Other causes of jaundice include:
      • Pernicious anemia
      • Wilson’s disease
      • Copper toxicity
    • The yellow discoloration at the level of the lips is not as prominent as in the other parts of the skin or eye sclera, but nevertheless present
  • Dehydration
    • Common in those who smoke cigarettes or in those who breathe through their mouth
    • The reduced intake of water, as well as the cold or windy weather, can lead to the lips become dry, chapped and discolored
    • Depending on the severity of the dehydration, the lips can appear pale or white in color, with a dark-brown border around them
  • Sun exposure
    • Chronic sun exposure – darkening of the lips
    • UV light stimulates the production of melatonin at the level of the skin (lips included)
    • The lips are not as affected at the rest of the body (reduced melanin content)
  • Medication
    • Antibiotics (tetracycline, minocycline)
    • Chemotherapy (cancer treatment)
    • Antimalarial drugs (prevention/treatment of malaria)
    • Tricyclic antidepressants (imipramine, desipramine)
    • Antipsychotic drugs (psychiatric conditions; phenothiazine – symptomatic treatment for nausea/vomiting)
    • Agents recommended for the lightening of the skin (hydroquinone)
    • Photosensitizing drugs (isotretinoin, acitretin – skin disorders’ treatment)
  • Eating disorders
    • Anorexia nervosa and bulimia – associated with lip discoloration (nutritional deficiencies)
    • Lip discoloration can be caused by repeated vomiting (+ corrosive action of stomach acid) in those who suffer from bulimia
  • Toxin/poison ingestion
    • Potential lip discoloration – accidental ingestion of mercury, silver, copper, bismuth etc.
    • Chemical burns caused by ingestion of toxic substances can lead to lip discoloration as well.

Treatment for Dark Lips (Discolored Lips)

lip discoloration
The treatment measures for the actual lip discoloration may include (depending on the underlying cause):

  • Topical hydroquinone cream
  • Cream with kojic acid
  • Topical retinoids
  • Hydrocortisone cream (mild)
  • Sunblock with high SPF (protection purpose)

The treatment has to be recommended by a professional dermatologist; if you take the treatment that you believe to be good for you, you might end up suffering from an even more intense discoloration. The dermatologist can recommend the exact frequency and dosage for the treatment, so that you obtain the desired results and do not suffer from additional complications.

While the symptomatic treatment might improve the aesthetic aspect of the lips, it is just as important to treat the underlying conditions. In many situations, if the underlying condition is successfully treated, the discoloration of the lips is going to improve on its own (without further symptomatic treatments being necessary). The diet can represent a measure of treatment on its own, especially when it comes to women who suffer from anemia or different nutritional deficiencies. The patients have to receive psychological counselling, so as to give up the habits that are bad for them, such as chronic smoking or alcohol abuse. Psychological counselling is recommended for those who suffer from drug intoxication or eating disorders; in more severe situations, it might be necessary that these people are admitted into a specialized clinic for rehabilitation.

Self Care for Discolored Lips

Once the lip discoloration has occurred, these are the self-care measures that you can consider:

  • Natural remedy of lemon juice and honey
    • Mix the freshly-squeezed lemon juice with the honey and apply the mixture to the lips
    • Purpose of the natural remedy – lighten the dark discoloration of the lips
    • The lemon juice contains citric acid, which can make the skin on the lips sensitive to the harmful action of the sun; this is the reason why, if you are planning on going out after you have tried this natural remedy, you need to apply lip balm with high SPF
  • Avoid going out on cold weather, especially if you know yourself to suffer from circulatory problems
  • Avoid prolonged or excessive sun exposure, especially during the peak hours (when going out, wear sunblock with high SPF, including on the lips)
  • Increase your water intake, so as to avoid dehydration (consume water as such, apart from the other types of liquids; also, be sure to avoid drinking excessive quantities of tea or coffee, as these can lead to dehydration)
  • Talk to your doctor about the possibility to change the medication that is causing the discoloration of the lips (choose a drug that does not have such effects)
  • Reduce the content of foods that are rich in beta carotene, so as to improve the discoloration of the lips.

How to Prevent Lip Discoloration?

These are the measures that you can take in order to prevent the discoloration of the lips:

  • Avoid using only matte lipsticks, as these can dry the lips and cause them to become discolored. It is recommended that you alternate the matte lipsticks with those that are creamy or have a moisturizing effect on the lips.
  • Perform regular exfoliation of the lips. Make sure that you use a gentle toothbrush and remove the dead skin cells from the lips. This operation is easy to perform while you are brushing the teeth.
  • Avoid licking your lips. Despite what you may think, this habit actually takes away the moisture from the lips, causing them to become dry and discolored. If you feel that your lips are too dry, it is for the best to use a balm with moisturizing effect, rather than lick your lips.


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