I didn’t grow up self-conscious about my lips. Really, I didn’t have much of an opinion about them at all. The only times I can recall thinking hard about my mouth is when I reveled in how great the glittery, grapefruit-tasting ooze from my Juicy Tubes looked on, and I always felt fairly confident where making out was concerned. Even during my biggest lip crisis—testing plumpers with my best friend for shits and giggles during a Sephora trip over a decade ago, which resulted in both of us frantically fanning our mouths in burning pain—I never felt bad about my lips. They were just…lips. Fun to decorate in gloss and slather in Burt’s Bees to keep from getting chapped.
Of course, the Great Plumper Incident of 2006 was back before Instagram was a thing. Apart from my bangs having the perfect side swoop like Kristin Cavallari‘s, I didn’t feel the pressure to pick apart my photos or filter them to death. I either thought it was a good picture of me and put it on Facebook, or I deleted it and moved on with my life. Actually, I did read in a magazine once that standing with your hand on your hip and your back slightly arched made you look slimmer, so in every photo from college I look like I have a chicken wing and a reverse hunch back. Just imagine if I’d known about Facetune then.
Now, in my late 20s, we’re inundated by altered images, whether they’re the work of Photoshop or fillers. It’s made me acutely aware of my features, one of which being my lips. It’s not that I hate them or think there’s anything inherently wrong with them. I’m an advocate for body positivity and dismantling the unrealistic ideals we’ve internalized around “perfection”—but I also wish I had a little more something. I go back and forth on where I personally draw the line about whether getting work done is feminist, but at the end of the day, I believe we all have the right to do whatever we want to our own bodies.
I haven’t quite come to a decision about whether I want to make the jump to the needle in my own life. Maybe one day, but in the meantime I’ve found a product that both brings me back to the feel-good joy of slathering something shiny on my lips—and, yeah, it plumps the hell out of them too.
Enter SkinMedica’s HA5 Smooth and Plump Lip System, a kit of two tubes—one a serum, one a plumper—that deliver the same ingredient in fillers, hyaluronic acid, topically to your lips. The way it works: You start with the serum, which contains antioxidants, peptides, and polysaccharides to smooth the texture and lines around your lips. I’m 28, so lines aren’t a concern for me, but I did smoke for six years, so I feel like maybe this will partially make up for it. And I’m certainly not mad at how soft and silky the formula feels on. (You’re supposed to rub it on and around the perimeter of your mouth.) Then there’s the plumper, which you only want to put on your lips because it delivers the heavy stuff (benzyl nicotinate) to make them look rosier and more defined. Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor Yale School of Medicine’s department of Dermatology, tells me this is what really sets the system apart from the other HA products out there. Since serums for your face aren’t formulated for your lips, you can’t just layer it there and expect results.
I’ve been using the kit religiously, around three times a day for the past three months, and only once did I get flashbacks to the tingle of the Great Plumper Incident—and that’s only because I accidentally twisted the end to release way, way too much plumper at one time. It goes on thick but never in a sticky or tacky way. In fact, it feels so nice, I’ve been laying off my usual circuit of matte lipsticks and just going clear and glossy, à la 2006.
When I did pick up a matte shade again? (Kylie Cosmetics; I blame Instagram for this too.) I noticed a difference. No, it wasn’t like I spurted Kylie Jenner lips overnight, but there’s just a hint more volume where there used to be. I see it most actually when I put on lipstick. The only downside is the cost. It’s somewhat hefty at $68. But compared to the bill for fillers—and considering the way it makes me feel when I wear it—it’s a small price to pay.
SkinMedica HA5 Smooth and Plump Lip System, $68, skinmedica.com
–I Was a Lipstick Idiot Until I Accidentally Bought This Color
–I Couldn’t Have Gotten Through Wedding Season Without These Magnetic False Lashes
–This Foundation Matches My Undertones No Matter How Tan I Get in the Summer