As someone who regularly piles on, I don’t know, half a dozen skin care products every night before I go to sleep (not always in succession; see also: don’t judge me) I have to admit: I don’t pay much attention to my lips. On occasion, I’ll dab on whatever serum I’m already using on my face, or sometimes my moisturizer will accidentally make its way near my mouth. I apply Chapstick, Aquaphor, or whichever Glossier Balm Dot Com is floating around my bag no fewer than three times a day, usually out of habit or when I’m bored— but I can’t say I’ve ever given my mouth any major TLC, let alone an anti-aging treatment.
But when VERSO, one of my favorite skin care brands, launched a lip serum with retinol, I was a little curious. I slather on vitamin A with greater regularity than I take my birth control pill, but I’d always stopped short of my lips: It seemed like a recipe for major flaking, especially in the winter—but with a string of 80-plus-degree days, it was barely fall outside. I figured I’d give it a shot before it got too tundra-like.
First order of business? Figure out if I should treat it like any other lip balm. Turns out, the answer is no: “Retinol stimulates collagen enhances cell turnover, the first few weeks of use can cause skin irritation, so you need to be cautious about applying it to sensitive skin areas like those around the eyes and mouth,” says Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, who recommended I start using it every other night to keep the flaking to a minimum. Yum!
It’s also advised to use retinol at night to keep it from breaking down from UV exposure, so I started using it before I went to sleep. Other than the weird feeling of falling asleep with lip balm on—the serum’s texture is pretty goopy—the first week went by without incident, so I upped my frequency to every night for the next two weeks. Then, one morning, I woke up with noticeably softer lips—as though I’d just exfoliated and moisturized—but better. Hell, even my boyfriend noticed they were softer. I even celebrated the occasion by wearing lipstick, which happens maybe four times a year (and then by smearing it on my face every time I touched my lips, but that’s neither here nor there). But, while my lips were softer, I can’t say I saw a difference in any fine lines that I may or may not have at age 28.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, my lips felt like they had a weird film on them—and it lasted a few days. I powered through it and stuck with once-a-night application, which may or may not have been totally necessary. Cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson said she “wouldn’t expect this molecule this break down [during the day] as fast as retinol,” thanks to the brand’s Retinol 8, a proprietary complex that uses retinyl retinoate rather than traditional retinol. “Because of the shape of this retinoid, it doesn’t break down as fast [or] penetrate into the skin as fast as retinol, so the side effects will be reduced,” she said. “But so will the efficacy.” So while my lips probably wouldn’t see any more irritation, Wilson also predicted they also won’t see results as fast as a traditional retinol, either.
I’ve been applying it like clockwork for about a month now, and even though I haven’t seen any peeling—not even after the weird film-y feeling, which eventually gave way to even softer lips—I haven’t really noticed much of a change.
“At the very least, this product should be moisturizing which can help plump out the fine lines,” says Wilson, who later told me it would take the retinyl retinoate about 12 weeks before I’ll see any marked difference. Considering the slim tube is about two or three times the size of a regular lip balm, it’ll probably last me at least twice that long. So, while $65 is a hefty price for softer lips (but, like, much softer lips), if you’re truly concerned about lip volume, fine lines, or dark spots but don’t want to go the injections route, this could be a better option than whatever drugstore petroleum’s floating around the bottom of your purse.