Last Updated on July 31st, 2019
Have you managed to successfully clear all of your acne—except for stubborn acne around the mouth? This is actually a very common occurrence, because some of the daily care products we use the most can contribute specifically to acne around the mouth. Toothpastes and lip balms are typically to blame, although orthodontic or dental procedures could contribute to acne around the mouth as well. In some cases, those breakouts may not be acne at all, but perioral dermatitis. If our tips and tricks don’t help, or if your acne begins to look more like a rash, you may want to see a dermatologist to check for perioral dermatitis. If it truly is acne though, you’re relatively lucky. Acne around the mouth can typically be treated simply by switching a few daily care products.
This article will explain why certain lip balms or toothpastes cause acne around the mouth, provide a few products you might want to try instead, describe the difference between acne around the mouth and perioral dermatitis, and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about this particular kind of acne.
Article Table of Contents
If you have acne, you may avoid facewashes that use words like “gentle” or “soothing” because you need something more intense to wipe out your acne. You might try scrubbing brushes and exfoliating soaps and drying creams instead, but this is exactly the wrong tactic. In the last decade, dermatologists have discovered that the primary cause of acne is inflammation, and the best way to inflame your skin is to use harsh products. Unfortunately, the products you’re using to help with your acne could be making it worse.
This same idea applies to acne around the mouth, even if you don’t typically have acne anywhere else. Instead of acne-fighting products, toothpaste and lip balm could be causing the problem. Ingredients in most brands of these products are known for irritating the skin. But how exactly does that lead to acne?
When the skin is irritated, it tries to protect itself from the irritant. The two main ways your skin does this is through increased oil production and the inflammation response. By producing more oils (also known as sebum), your skin creates a layer of protection between it and whatever is irritating the skin. The inflammatory response causes the skin to swell slightly, which protects the skin in several ways. It closes pores, which prevents whatever is irritating the skin from penetrating deeper levels, and if it has already made its way into the pores, inflammation prevents the source of the irritation from spreading.
Although this is a very effective method of protection, inflammation is the primary cause of acne1. When the pores close themselves off, all of the sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria that were on the surface of the skin can get trapped inside. This causes acne, so it’s important to avoid products that irritate the skin. Unfortunately, many brands of toothpaste and lip balm can be very irritating.
Many of us use lip balm to soothe our lips when they’re chapped, or to comfort us with their amazing smells that remind us of Christmas cookies or summer days at the pool or even our favorite soda. Some sources claim that the pleasant fragrances contribute to something called lip balm addiction (for more information, see the FAQ section). It may soothe our lips, but lip balm often irritates our skin, and those comforting scents are usually to blame.
The chemicals that create fragrances are usually irritating to the skin2, and the waxy nature of lip balm can clog pores, trapping those irritating chemicals in the skin. If lip balm migrates off your lips and onto the skin around your mouth, acne will almost definitely ensue. To help avoid acne around the mouth, our best recommendation is to try non-scented lip balm. We know, that takes away half the fun, but it also takes away half the potential causes for acne.
You may have some trouble finding unscented lip balm at first, because the scent has become a driving force of the lip balm industry. But there are some options, like Badger Balm, an all-natural lip balm with only four ingredients: olive oil, beeswax, castor oil, and rosemary extract. Although the beeswax could still contribute to clogged pores, the lack of artificial fragrance chemicals should help reduce irritation.
If you are a loyal user of Burt’s Bees, there are fragrance free options, but be aware that not all their products are. We recommend their Ultra Conditioning Lip Balm. The ingredient list is much longer than with Badger Balm, however, so if you find that switching to the Ultra Conditioning Balm doesn’t help reduce acne, it could contain something that is irritating your skin.
If you have acne around the mouth, one factor that could be causing it is your toothpaste. Most toothpaste brands contain a chemical called sodium lauryl sulfate. Generally, it’s important to remember that chemicals are not necessarily bad things. Everything can be broken down to its chemical components, after all. Along that same vein, some chemicals are very good at doing what they’re designed to do, but unfortunately have some unintentional negative effects. That is the case with sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).
SLS is something called a surfactant, and its job is to cling to the plaque that collects on your teeth, and then form little bubbles that lift the plaque and remove it. It is good at this job, but when SLS comes into contact with your skin, it can sometimes cause irritation3. This applies to the skin around your mouth, where you might be experiencing acne, but if you have canker sores, SLS could be responsible for those as well.
Even though SLS can help remove plaque, there are other chemicals that are less irritating that can also do the trick. If you believe your toothpaste may be causing acne around the mouth, there are a few brands you can try instead. One is Brandless, a company that makes toothpaste that is SLS-free, but is also fluoride-free, alcohol-free, and cruelty-free. One other toothpaste that doesn’t contain SLS is Tom’s of Maine, SLS-Free Botanically Bright toothpaste. Similar to Brandless, this toothpaste has a fresh peppermint taste, but without the potentially irritating SLS.
Oddly enough, yes you can. To clarify, routine cleanings will not cause acne around the mouth. However, dental hardware on the outside of the mouth like jaw splits, or long procedures that require your mouth to be propped open could cause a very specific kind of acne called acne mechanica. This is often referred to as sports acne, but it can be caused by a variety of things, not just sports. Acne mechanica is acne caused primarily by friction and pressure, like a tight uniform that rubs against the skin.
Intensive orthodontic or dental procedures/hardware can have the same effect. Splints and the devices used to keep your mouth open and steady during a long procedure both apply consistent pressure around the mouth, trapping sebum in the pores. Although they usually don’t rub and cause much friction, the amount of time these devices are pressed against the skin have been shown to increase acne4. Trapping sebum in the pores for an extended period of time can clog them and even cause inflammation, leading to blackheads, whiteheads, and possibly other acne around the mouth.
Unlike lip balm or toothpaste, there’s really no way to avoid important dental or orthodontic procedures or hardware. The best way to avoid additional acne from these sorts of visits is to apply your full skincare routine before leaving for the procedure, and rinsing your face, especially around your mouth, as soon as it is safe to do so after the procedure. Hopefully this is not a recurring issue, so even if you do have a minor breakout, it won’t be long-lasting.
If you have small, red or white raised bumps around your mouth, it may seem obvious that it’s acne, especially if you have similar breakouts other places on your skin. But it could actually be something called perioral dermatitis.
Perioral dermatitis is a rash that is often found around the mouth, but can also be found around the eyes, nose, or even the genitals. It appears as red or skin-toned bumps that resemble an acne breakout, and the skin is usually dry and flaky. It’s not unusual for the rash to be accompanied by an itching or burning sensation, but some people have perioral dermatitis without the presence of any itching or burning.
As of right now, dermatologists are not completely sure what causes perioral dermatitis. One possible cause is overuse of corticosteroid creams5. If you have been using a corticosteroid cream and you have consistent acne-like breakouts around your mouth, and no acne treatment seems to be working, try discontinuing the use of the corticosteroid. If it was prescribed by a doctor, speak to them before discontinuing any treatment, but if it is over-the-counter, you should be able to stop usage without significant effects to your health.
At first, this may make the rash worse, but it’s important not to start using the cream again. If it doesn’t start to fade after a few days without the corticosteroid, you should speak to a doctor. Perioral dermatitis can often be treated at home by discontinuing the use of potentially problematic skin products or creams, but sometimes an antibiotic from the doctor is the best solution.
Even if you do not use a corticosteroid, there is a chance that the acne around your mouth is actually perioral dermatitis. If the breakouts start to spread, itch, burn or worsen with the application of acne products, make an appointment with your dermatologist to discuss the possibility of perioral dermatitis.
If you only have acne around the mouth, it is likely a product like lip balm or toothpaste causing the issue. But if you have acne elsewhere as well, your current skincare routine may not be as effective as it could be. Some acne treatment systems are far too harsh, and they irritate the skin and cancel out any benefit they might have provided. If you tried a particular treatment system and your acne cleared quickly at first, then came back after a few weeks, it is likely too harsh.
The best way to take care of your skin and prevent acne is to use a gentle skincare system that cleanses, treats, and moisturizes the skin. If you have oily skin, you may be wary of moisturizers, but your skin really does need to retain its moisture when you treat acne6. Water-based moisturizers are not likely to clog pores and they generally don’t add to the oil on your skin.
As for the cleansing and treating stages, the best treatments use a combination of active ingredients that address all of the causes of acne, but don’t overpower the skin. The best system we’ve found so far is Exposed Skincare. Their ingredients are powerful enough to significantly reduce acne, but gentle enough to avoid extra inflammation.
The other reason we recommend them is because of their money-back guarantee. If you try Exposed and it doesn’t work for you, you can send it back and get most of your money back. They don’t refund you for shipping, but still, it’s a fairly low-risk investment. We’ve found that their products work on all skin types, from oily to sensitive, but if it doesn’t work for you, all you have to do is return it within the first year of use. And unlike some other skincare companies, they don’t give you the run-around on the phone or make it intentionally difficult to return the product.
Q. Is lip balm addiction really a thing?
A. That really depends on what you consider an addition. Addictions often come with two components: physiological dependence and psychological dependence. Physiological dependence is when your body needs a certain substance, or it will suffer serious negative effects (think of withdrawal sweats and shakes). Psychological dependence is when you feel like you need something in a very urgent way, but technically no physical harm will result if you do not get it.
Lip balm is not physiologically addictive, but it is true that using lip balm can be “habit-forming” for some people. They may use it so often that they don’t even realize it when they put more on, or it may become a compulsive act they feel they have to perform at an unreasonable frequency. Because this could detract from a person’s quality of life, some may consider it an addiction.
At the same time, it’s important to consider lip balm “addiction” in the context of other addictions, and recognize that much of the hype on the internet is exaggerated or meant as satire. For instance, there is a website called “Lip Balm Anonymous” which outlines the 12 steps of recovery as it pertains to lip balm. Some claim the site is a legitimate resource for this problem, but it is generally considered to be a parody website.
Q. I thought bacteria caused acne?
A. Bacteria are definitely a factor in acne, but they are not the cause. Researchers used to believe that the root cause of acne was a particular kind of bacteria, known as p. acnes. In recent years, however, studies have shown that acne doesn’t start with bacteria. It starts with inflammation.
Our bodies are a delicate ecosystem of bacteria, and our skin is no exception. P. acnes bacteria always live on the surface of your skin to some degree. In healthy numbers, they can even be helpful because they consume sebum as a food source, so they can prevent the sebum buildup which often causes blackheads and whiteheads.
Bacteria only become a problem when the skin is inflamed. Inflammation causes the pores to close, trapping sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria beneath the surface, and that’s when bacteria contribute to acne7. Without inflammation, bacteria would be a relatively minor issue, if they became an issue at all. Once the skin is inflamed though, bacteria can definitely lead to pimples and cysts.
Trapped in a pore with their food source, their numbers grow until the immune system recognizes it as an infection and sends cells to destroy the bacteria. This often further increases inflammation, which is what makes pimples so raised and sometimes painful. In the process of killing the bacteria, the immune system cells usually die too, and all this dead cell matter creates pus, which is what gives pimples their white or yellow-ish color.
So bacteria play a significant role in acne, especially pimples or cysts, but inflammation seems to be the real cause.
Q. Can lipstick have the same effect as lip balm?
A. Lipstick doesn’t necessarily do the same thing as lip balm, but it could cause acne around the mouth, especially the “lip stain” kind. Lipstick that is meant to “stain” usually creates a sort of seal on the lips, to keep the color from smudging or flaking. If any of this gets on the skin surrounding the lips, it seals off the pores, effectively trapping sebum and dead skin cells beneath the surface, which is how blackheads and whiteheads start.
Even if you apply your lipstick perfectly, without getting any on the skin surrounding your lips, it could definitely still lead to acne around the mouth. It comes back to inflammation. Lipstick (again, especially the staining kind) is difficult to remove and requires some degree of scrubbing. Scrubbing at the skin is always bad for acne, because it irritates the skin8, which causes it to become inflamed. Even worse, through the scrubbing process, lipstick could actually get pressed into the pores, clogging them and likely leading blackheads or whiteheads.
Q. I really can’t afford fancy SLS-free toothpaste. Is there any way to keep using my current toothpaste and still get rid of the acne around my mouth?
A. Discount toothpaste is a great way to save money, and we understand that not everyone can afford SLS-free toothpaste. It may only cost a few extra dollars, but toothpaste is a recurring expense and that can add up over time. If you need to stick with your normal toothpaste, there are other ways to decrease your chances of getting acne around your mouth.
Our best tip is to brush your teeth before washing your face and doing the rest of your skincare routine. Washing your face gently right after brushing your teeth should rinse away the SLS before it has a chance to sink into the skin around your mouth, irritate it, and cause inflammation.
One additional way you can try to prevent acne around the mouth is to brush carefully and prevent any toothpaste from actually coming into contact with your skin. This is a pretty difficult task, so our best recommendation is washing your face after brushing if you use toothpaste with SLS.
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