The year was 2003 and you were nobody (like, nobody) if your Dooney & Burke bag didn't contain a rollerball of Narciso Rodriguez for Her, a frosty eye shadow that totally matched your shirt and a DuWop Lip Venom to apply religiously. You'd layer on the shimmering, sticky goo until your lips shone so brightly they could be seen from space and stung so much that you had a whole new excuse not to raise your hand in Geometry.
Lip plumpers were an early-aughts beauty essential in all their bee-stung glory, but like face framing platinum highlights and those eggcrate-like scrunchy shirts that shrunk down to nothing, they fell out of favor eventually, possibly when everybody finally admitted how unpleasant it was to walk around feeling like your lips were on fire. But with the rise of Kardashian/Jenners and lip injections, the voluminous lip look has nonetheless exploded in popularity since then.
Maybe it was the way advances in technology made noninvasive procedures like lip augmentations easier than ever; maybe it was the proliferation of social media (we're not pointing fingers here, but Kylie Jenner didn't have a lip challenge named after her for nothing). Whatever the reason, big lips are hotter than ever right now, which naturally means that lip plumpers were primed for a comeback.
Luckily for your lips, this new generation of volumizers is more committed to long-term, painless plumping than the stinging versions of the early millennium. Where the old style of lip plumpers mainly relied on irritants like cinnamon or capsaicin (yes, the same ingredient that's in pepper spray) to bring blood close to the surface of the lips and cause mild swelling, most of the new versions are borrowing ideas from their more hardcore lip augmentation brethren, fillers.
"The biggest crossover ingredient in topical plumpers and injectable fillers is hyaluronic acid," says Dr. Shereene Idriss, a cosmetic dermatologist, who considers it the best, safest option for non-permanent plumping effects. If you're a beauty fiend, no doubt hyaluronic acid sounds familiar; it appears in all sorts of moisturizers and serums nowadays. The molecule is derived from sugar, making the chances of an allergic reaction low even for sensitive types, and it can hold up to one thousand times its own weight in water, aka ideal for locking moisture into the skin. Fillers favor it because HA naturally occurs in the body and is slowly broken down over time, so it's much more natural looking and feeling, not to mention far more reversible than old school lip fillers like silicones or fats.
"When applied topically on your lips, hyaluronic acid gives the appearance of fuller, plumper lips by hydrating the surface of your lips," explains Idriss. Essentially these new lip plumpers work like a lip balm turned up to 11, filling the skin cells in your lips up to the brim with moisture so your lips look their most naturally full and plumped. They also have the potential to yield longer term results than ye olde Lip Venom, though you have to use them consistently to maintain the effects. It's also worth noting that in the same way that serious skin moisturizers can minimize fine lines and wrinkles without increasing the size of your face, these filler alternatives are best suited to making lips look more plush and naturally voluminous, not giving you a major sizing change an injectable will provide.
As for those "other" lip plumpers you've seen around, suction cups like FullLips or electrical devices like Ziip, which has a lip plumping setting? "Lip plumping devices using electro-currents are great for a quick fix, but they come at a heavy price that makes it hard to justify their short lasting results," says Idriss. "By relaxing and dilating the blood vessels in your lips, devices like Ziip temporarily increase the blood supply to your lips, causing them to swell in the short-term with minimal risk." That minimal risk doesn't hold up for suction products though, as anyone who has ever made the mistake of Google image searching "Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge" can attest. Suction is much for dangerous for your mouth, according to Idriss, because, "It essentially causes trauma to your lips. If done in excess, it can result in bruising, blistering, and extreme swelling." Yeah, hard pass.
To see how these new style of plumpers stack up, I tested out several of these noninvasive, at-home products on my own personal pout (the sacrifices I make for beauty reporting) The results? Check out my before and afters below:
Folks who hate the feel of lip products, take note: Fillerina focuses on the power of hyaluronic acid, with a skin-care line featuring several creams and treatments as well as this, their signature lip plumper. As Idriss notes, "hyaluronic acid, although a single ingredient, is not created equal across the board. It comes in different formulations with various molecular sizes and weights." To pack in maximum plumping power, this super-light gel serum includes six different HA molecules and comes in three different strength formulas, so you can choose the intensity based on what kind of results you're after.
It comes in a clickable rollerball that feels pleasantly cool on lips and soaks in before you even have a chance to press your lips together. It's completely clear and leaves no noticeable residue behind if you opt for the recommended dose (get carried away with your clicking, and you may notice some pilling). In fact, the au naturale feel was the most disconcerting part of using this plumper for me; as a lip balm obsessive, the feeling of my lips not being noticeably coated in something sent "DANGER!" signals to my brain.
That said, my lips never felt dry, even after eschewing my usual overnight coating of Vaseline. I did ultimately give in to the urge to apply lipstick over the gel when I went out, but the brand assures me that's no problem; just make sure that the product has fully absorbed before you layer anything else on top of it. If you're not somebody who applies lip balm like it's a full time job (see: me) the three to five recommended daily applications might get annoying, but I didn't have any trouble remembering when it was time to reapply. The hardest part was remembering to keep the product with me (it's not the daintiest of tubes).
As for the plumping factor, I will go ahead and say for full disclosure that the instructions suggest a four-week round of use for best results (which can be repeated every three to four months), and as of this writing, I've only completed three of those weeks with the Grade 1 strength (the mildest of the three versions). Given that caveat, I can't say I've noticed a dramatic change in the overall volume of my lips. They feel consistently moisturized and comfortable, and I could definitely see the appeal of using it under other lip colors, especially matte ones, all plumping concerns aside. It also goes a long way; in three weeks of daily application, I've only used up about a quarter of the product. But at $89, this may not be the top choice for thin-lipped types on a budget.
For those who prefer a more traditional balm-y feel to their lip products, there's this injection alternative from Dr. Brandt. This version packs two treatments — a soft pink "AM" formula with a faint fruity scent and a white "PM" one that leaves a slight menthol tingle in its wake — into one tube. Each formula is housed in its own tiny capsule inside of a larger tube; twist the bottom of the tube to switch between AM and PM, or to lock it down between uses. Here, hyaluronic acid bands together with peptides, shea and moringa butters, and botanical oils like coconut and jojoba to deeply moisturize. I found the plastic applicator tip unwieldy and ultimately just applied both versions with my fingers, but otherwise the pump tube worked well.
Like the Fillerina plumper, this one is meant to be used in the long term, though this one splits the difference by including the instant results of the AM with the commitment-required PM. The plumping effects are pretty much what you would expect from an intensely hydrating lip balm, although I've only been able to use it over the course of a few days, so I can't say for sure that the longer term effects won't be more impressive. Still, the formula feels nice and left my lips hydrated (even by my overly intense standards) all day long, despite forcing myself not to use any other products. I also suspect that the volumizing effects might be more obvious on those with deeper lines on and around their lips to begin with.
Of the versions I tested, this was by far the most like the old-school lip plumpers you remember and also easily the most instantaneously effective. Though not as irritating to the skin, and far less like applying straight honey to your mouth than your middle school fave, this Too Faced product has a distinct... sensation. On first application, it feels like a light gloss (think: the difference between your current favorite gloss and those ancient Lancôme Juicy Tubes). Then, within the first minute or two, a slight sensation begins to build, somewhere between a pepper-burn and the pins-and-needles tingling you get when your foot falls asleep.
It intensifies over the course of another minute or so and then starts to level out — not painful, but not something you can just forget about, either. The feeling lasts for about 10 minutes, while the plumping effects of blood rushing to the surface of your lips hang around for about half an hour. My lips also got noticeably pinker (there is a less-extreme version that also comes in a variety of colors, though this one is exclusively clear with a nearly imperceptible shimmer), including the area slightly beyond the border of my lips, so I'd recommend not applying right up to the vermilion border.
While it had the most obvious immediate effects, unlike the others, this version isn't designed to help with long-term plumping, making it a good choice if you're looking for a little bonus pout in your Instagram shot, but less ideal for all day use.
Lip mask brand KNC became wildly popular on Instagram (and even got Kardashian approval) with its volume boosting blend of collagen and hyaluronic acid. That version has also become nigh impossible to get your hands on, so I opted for this more accessible hydrogel version from my local The Face Shop that shares most of the same ingredients. Application-wise it's exactly the same as slapping on your favorite sheet mask, with one section for your upper lip and another for the lower. I was afraid that without the major contours of a face to cling to they would slip right off, but once I got them positioned correctly (matching up the edges of my relatively small lips without getting a mouth full of mask was a challenge) they hung on well.
While the sections of the mask are separate, I wouldn't recommend trying to have a major conversation with it on, but talking was possible with some slight readjustment. After 20 minutes, I peeled the masks off to find my lips much softer, with no discernible film. They felt slightly plumped and had that kind of post-spa-treatment feel that makes you want to use meaningless words like nourished, but again I can't say I noticed dramatic plumping results. Still, for those post-salt rimmed margarita days of summer coming up, I can absolutely see the appeal of having a few of these stocked in your cabinet.
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