Suffering from lip-adjacent zits? Here are some derm-approved ways to squash them.

By Hana Hong
October 06, 2020
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We all know that pimples have hot spots—and some of them are weirder and more painful than others. Case in point: One of the most frustrating skin afflictions has to be the recurring breakouts that pop up in close vicinity to your mouth. Unfortunately, your mouth is not exempt from the T-zone (acne’s favorite area) due to the large size of oil glands in the area and the constant contact it makes with food. It doesn't help that every time you talk, chew, yawn, or showcase any form of emotion bigger than a small smile, you get an unfriendly reminder of the inflammation’s existence.

To make matters worse, pimples share some similarities with cold sores (especially in terms of appearance), which could easily elicit confusion in someone who's suffering a breakout. The good news? Pimples and cold sores actually have very little in common, making it pretty easy to distinguish from one another once you know exactly what to look for. And although battling blemishes around your mouth might seem like an uphill battle, there are methods you can take to tackle the nasty buggers along your lip line.

With that in mind, we tapped Loretta Ciraldo MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Miami, Fla. and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare, to help differentiate between pimples and cold sores, and how to treat lip pimples should they arise.

What's the difference between a cold sore and a lip pimple?

Let's dial it back to the basics: Simply put, lip pimples are just like any other pimple you get on your face—but on your lips. It's caused by a multitude of factors. In addition to overactive oil glands that promote the overgrowth of acne-causing bacteria, Dr. Ciraldo says that one of the most common culprits is fragranced lip products, including lipstick, gloss, and even lip balms (some wax in lip balms can clog pores if the lip balm spreads onto the skin close to the lips). Couple that with the humidity and friction you get from wearing face masks—and you’ve got yourself a pimple breeding ground.  

On the other hand, cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. Your body will usually warn you it’s coming with a tingling, itching, or burning sensation. Outbreaks are often triggered by internal changes, such as a cold or infection, fluctuating hormone levels, and stress. Since you can catch the highly contagious infection through something as simple as kissing, the majority of people are exposed to the virus, but it will only come out when triggered, says Dr. Ciraldo.

That being said, there are some telling physical differentiators between the two. “If you were to take a closer look, the cold sore will be a cluster of blisters whereas a pimple is just a single reddish-pink bump (or white if it is milia) and will never occur directly on the lips,” says Dr. Ciraldo. “The pimple is also usually more tender, as opposed to cold sores which tend to burn.”

How to treat a lip pimple

Lip pimples are caused by the same pore-clogging bacteria as regular pimples, so the ways to counteract it are pretty similar. First and foremost, “while tempting, don’t squeeze!” says Dr. Ciraldo. “Our lips are so red because they’re vascular, so you can get a deep bruise and bleed (in addition to bruising and scarring) if you squeeze a lip pimple.”

Pimples can be treated with acne-fighting ingredients, like bacteria-killing benzoyl peroxide and exfoliating salicylic acid, as well as topical retinoids like tretinoin, adapalene, or tazarotene, says Dr. Ciraldo. “Take a spot acne treatment and apply it with a cotton tip to any area on your lip that seems to be turning red and swollen.” You can also slap on a pimple patch to deter picking and help extract the gunk inside.

Maskne is a very common occurrence, so try to wipe away sweat and cleanse that area periodically with a mild cleanser, adds Dr. Ciraldo. “Be sure to remove all lip products before you go to bed and thoroughly wash over your lips," she says. "The key to preventing lip breakouts is exfoliation: Many people don’t bring their exfoliators and cleansers all the way over our lips.”

You should be able to get rid of an occasional pimple on the lip with home treatment, but if your lip breakouts are particularly persistent or lean towards the cystic kind, you might want to look into alternative treatment methods like birth control and Accutane. All this to say: While it is frustrating (and too often misconstrued as a teenage ailment), lip pimples are treatable and completely normal. Don’t be afraid to sit down with your dermatologist and figure out a treatment solution together.