How to Deal with Acne Around the Mouth - Tips and Tricks

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

Blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples can all appear as acne around the mouth. Although this acne is just like acne anywhere else, it may be more sensitive or painful due to the large number of nerve endings in and around the mouth. Luckily, there are a few simple changes you can make to your daily routine that can significantly reduce acne around your mouth. First, it’s important to know for sure that what you are experiencing is actually acne.

Woman smiling showing a radiant look.
Acne around the lips and mouth can be a thing of the past with a few small changes to your daily routine.

Is Acne Around the Mouth Herpes?

This is one of the most common questions we get asked about acne around the mouth. The answer is no, acne is just that: acne. Cold sores caused by the herpes virus HSV-1 (different from the HSV-2 virus that causes genital herpes) are a completely different problem. So how do you tell the difference?

Acne around the mouth typically looks just like acne anywhere else: blackheads are small, dark dots, whiteheads are small white dots, and pimples are raised bumps with a white or yellow head. Cold sores, on the other hand, typically do not form bumps or heads. Instead, they look like small blisters. Sometimes cold sores will burst, and the liquid inside is always clear, like a regular blister. If a pimple bursts, the liquid will not be clear, it will be a white or yellow-ish color.

If you aren’t sure which condition you’re dealing with, acne or cold sores, we recommend visiting a physician or dermatologist. They can typically diagnose the problem without any major testing. It’s important to know whether you have cold sores or acne because the treatments are very different, and using the wrong one could make things worse.

What Causes Acne Around the Mouth?

Acne around the mouth has multiple potential causes. If you have consistent acne, it could be caused by the same inflammation, bacteria, and oil production that causes all acne. However, if acne isn’t usually a problem for you, or if you’ve cleared up most of your acne except for acne around your mouth, then it may be caused by one of your daily care products, like toothpaste or lip balm. There is also speculation that smoking, both nicotine-based products and cannabis-based products, could lead to acne in general and around the mouth, but the research in that area is still inconclusive.

Acne 101

The majority of acne is caused by some combination of three factors: inflammation, bacteria, and oil production. The skin can becom inflamed due to infection, irritation, stress, or other factors, and it leads to acne because it causes the pores to close. This traps oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria under the surface of the skin, where they can clog the pore and create a whitehead, or they can cause a minor infection which leads to a pimple.

When it comes to bacteria and acne, there is a specific type that causes problems: p. acnes. But it isn’t all bad. In fact, p. acnes bacteria can help your skin when left alone. P. acnes use the oil our skin naturally produces as a food source, so they can help prevent oil buildup that could cause clogged pores.

A problem only arises with bacteria when the skin is inflamed. Inflammation traps the bacteria under the skin with oil, their food source, so they multiply rapidly and create a small infection, which leads to a pimple. This is why it’s so important to protect the skin and prevent inflammation. If you can prevent inflammation, you can prevent quite a bit of acne.

The other factor in acne formation is oil production. The skin naturally produces oil to protect itself from irritants and bacteria in the air. This is generally a good thing, but sometimes the skin produces too much oil, which provides extra food for bacteria and leads to pimples, or the excess oil gets trapped in a pore, which leads to blackheads and whiteheads. Many acne treatments revolve around reducing oil or stripping away excess oil, but use caution. Removing too much oil can leave the skin dry and vulnerable to irritation, which almost always causes inflammation. Acne treatment requires a delicate balance between fighting acne and taking care of the skin.

Can Lip Balm Cause Acne?

Although lip balm can be very soothing for the lips, it is often irritating to the skin around them. The two main reasons lip balm can be a problem for acne around the mouth is the wax and the fragrances. One of the best parts of lip balm are the amazing scents. They have every smell you can imagine, from Christmas Tree to Piña Colada to Coca-Cola. The problem is, the chemicals required to make these terrific scents can irritate the skin.

The skin on your lips doesn’t have any oil production glands or hair follicles, so these irritating fragrances can’t find their way into the pores to cause acne on your actual lips. The skin surrounding the lips, however, has the same glands and follicles and open pores as the rest of the face, so when fragrance chemicals irritate the skin, it becomes inflamed and generates acne.

The wax in lip balm can also cause a big problem. Lip balms provide a waxy layer of protection from the drying air, which helps keep lips soft, and because the lips don’t have open pores to get clogged, this is strategy can work wonders without causing any issues. But again, it can cause issues for the surrounding skin. When the wax covers the pores surrounding the lips, they get clogged and often produce blackheads.

Lipstick can have similar effects, and sometimes it can be even worse. The kind of lipstick that “stains” the lips with color doesn’t just coat the lips with wax, it creates a seal to keep the color from fading or smudging. This seals the pores off from air almost entirely, leading to clogs and acne. The other problem with lipstick specifically is that it often requires some scrubbing to remove. Scrubbing at the skin is always a bad idea, because it causes irritation, inflammation, and acne.

Woman putting on lipstick in fornt of the mirror.
The wax and fragrance chemicals in your lip balm or lipstick could be causing the acne around your mouth.

The Trouble with Toothpaste

One other product that could lead to acne around the mouth is toothpaste. Although it is vital to healthy teeth, some of its chemicals are much too harsh for the skin. Specifically, many toothpastes contain a chemical called sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). SLS is a surfactant, which means it clings to plaque on the teeth, and then foams to lift plaque away from the teeth.

As you brush and the SLS causes the toothpaste to foam up, some of those bubbles inevitably make it to the corners of your mouth and the skin surrounding your lips. For many people, the SLS in those bubbles irritate the skin and cause acne.

To test if your toothpaste is causing an acne problem, brush very carefully for a few days and avoid getting any toothpaste on your skin. If your acne starts to fade, then you may be sensitive to SLS. One solution is to brush very carefully all the time, but that typically isn’t sustainable because it’s time consuming and difficult. A better option would be to buy toothpaste that doesn’t contain SLS.

Smoking and Your Skin

Several studies have been done on the relationship between smoking and acne, and so far, nothing conclusive has been decided. However, nicotine-based smoking and cannabis-based smoking both have properties that could contribute to acne around the mouth.

Nicotine constricts the flow of oxygen, which comes with a whole host of negative side effects. With the skin in particular, this reduced access to oxygen slows the healing process, accelerates skin cell death, and increases inflammation. Increased inflammation almost always leads to acne because it closes pores. Early skin cell death is one reason smoking can make a person look older than they are, but it also leads to clogged pores. Finally, when the healing process is slowed down, it can increase the likelihood of scarring, a common side effect of acne. Studies on cannabis are less clear, but some research suggests that it could affect hormone levels that lead to increased oil production.

One theory about how smoking could affect the skin around the mouth specifically focuses on the cloud of smoke that is exhaled. When smoking cigars or cigarettes, the smoke that is exhaled contains all kinds of chemicals that could irritate the skin. Even though e-cigarettes or cannabis don’t contain all of the negative chemicals in regular cigarettes, they still contain nicotine or cannabis, which can also irritate the skin and could cause increased acne.

How to Avoid Acne Around the Mouth

Preventing acne is almost always easier than treating it, and luckily, there are several easy ways to prevent acne around the mouth. The easiest changes you can make are starting a daily skin care routine, changing to an SLS-free toothpaste, and using fragrance-free lip balm.

If you don’t have a consistent acne treatment regimen, it is the first thing we recommend. Gently taking care of your skin every day can make a huge difference in acne. At Exposed Skin Care, we offer several skin care kits that include all the essentials for keeping your skin healthy. Our Basic Kit is a great place to start if you are new to skin care and acne treatment. Like the name suggests, it contains all the basics to get clear skin. If you’re a skin care veteran and you’re looking for something a bit more intensive, our Expanded Kit includes our signature Moisture Complex, and our Ultimate Kit contains everything you’ll ever need to prevent and treat your acne, including our Clarifying Mask, Microderm Scrub, and Probiotic Capsules.

Exposed Expanded Kit
Our Expanded Kit includes some of our best products, to ensure clear, healthy skin.

If you have a skin care routine that works for you, but you still have some acne around your mouth, there are other easy ways to prevent it, like changing your lip balm or toothpaste brand. They aren’t as fun, but there are several fragrance-free lip balms out there that are far less likely to cause acne problems. Check the ingredients list for “fragrance” before buying.

Switching toothpastes is another easy fix that could have a significant impact. SLS-free toothpaste is becoming more and more popular, but before going to the store, it might help to do a quick Google search for “SLS-free toothpaste.”

How to Treat Acne Around the Mouth

Prevention is usually easier than treatment, but you can’t prevent everything. Acne around the mouth is usually caused by some form of irritation, so the best treatments gently exfoliate and soothe the skin, like salicylic acid and green tea extract.

Salicylic acid is a great ingredient for gently unclogging pores without irritating the skin, if it’s used responsibly. Different products contain different amounts, or concentrations, of salicylic acid, ranging from 0.5% to 2%. A low concentration is better for sensitive, irritated skin, like the skin around the mouth.

Salicylic acid is even more effective when combined with green tea extract. Drinking green tea can help reduce general inflammation, which could help with acne, but the best way to target a specific problem area is with concentrated green tea extract. When applied directly to the skin, it can reduce inflammation and reduce redness, making any acne around your mouth less painful and less visible.

One of the best acne treatment products containing both salicylic acid and green tea extract is our Clear Pore Serum. Like all our products at Exposed Skin Care, it combines scientific and natural active ingredients to get rid of acne effectively and gently. Other acne brands could actually make acne around your mouth worse, because they use drying ingredients that could irritate the skin even more.

The Best DIY Recipe for Acne Around the Mouth

If you prefer to make your own acne remedies, DIY style, we recommend a combination of honey and green tea.


  • 1 tablespoon of honey
  • 1 tea bag of green tea


Cut open the tea bag and pour contents into a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of honey and mix thoroughly. Once the green tea is spread evenly throughout the mixture, use a cotton ball or your fingertips to apply it to the affected area. Because honey and green tea are so gentle, this treatment can set for as long as you like, but we recommend leaving it on for at least 20 minutes. After the desired amount of time, rinse with cool water, but avoid scrubbing. Even though honey is sticky, it is best to remove it by gently moving your fingertips in small circles until the skin is clear. Once the skin has been thoroughly rinsed, pat dry with a soft towel.