Lip discoloration is the darkening or lightening of the lips from its usual coloring and is typically a benign symptom that indicates a hormonal change. Other times it may simply be the result of irritation and sun exposure or of a person’s diet. Rarely, lip discoloration is a sign of an oral cancer. Although this condition may happen to both genders, the majority of cases are with women.
Hormone changes are usually the primary cause of lip discoloration, especially in women, and most notably, women with darker skin tone. Pregnancy is often a time with discoloration of the lips and other areas of the face occur as the body produces more estrogen. Similarly, discoloration may occur while a woman is taking birth control pills. Anyone who is receiving hormone therapy is also likely to experience some degree of discoloration. In these cases, the discoloration is likely to disappear on its own over time, with minimal or no medical help.
Occasionally, if the area around the mouth is irritated by an acne treatment or from waxing, the lips may darken if the skin is exposed to the sun for a prolonged period of time shortly after the treatment. Prolonged sun exposure on its own may also cause the lips to darken. This is especially so in areas with warmer climates. People with darker skin tones are usually more prone to this type of discoloration. In these instances, treating lip discoloration may be done by using products that contain hydrocortisone, kojic acid, or topical retinoid. Doctors often suggest that the only way to prevent this type of discoloration is to use lip products that have SPF 15 or higher.
Other benign causes are usually a result from diet. People who drink excessive amounts of coffee or smoke may develop discoloring of the lips. Typically, the only way to get the lips back to their original pigmentation is to not take these substances or cut back. Furthermore, people who suffer from lip discoloration as a result from smoking may later develop an oral cancer.
On rare occasions, splotchy or white-ish lip discoloration is a sign of an oral cancer. This discoloration is usually subtle and largely goes unnoticed by most people. Typically, a dentist checks for this and other signs of oral cancers during regular check-ups. If an oral cancer is suspected, the dentist will refer the patient to a specialist for further inspection.