Dark Lips (Blue, Brown to Black Discoloration of the Lip)

The color of human lips, as is the case with skin, varies from one person to another. The lips also has skin but it is thinner. Usually it does not contain the same amount of skin pigment (melanin) as does the skin elsewhere on the body. Furthermore surface color is also determined by the amount of blood flowing in the superficial layers of the skin. Collectively these factors, along with use of lip makeup, lead to a diversity of lip colors that is considered normal. However, when the lips dark or become blue then it may be a sign of an underlying medical problem.

What is the normal color of lips?

As mentioned above, lip color varies due to skin pigmentation and the blood flowing underneath it. Therefore the color of lips may vary from a pink to brown color. The lips are usually light in color than skin elsewhere on the body, in a similar way as the palms are lighter colored. Thickness of the skin on the lips and dryness of the lip surface can also impact on the color. Therefore there is no single color that can be considered normal.

However, there are some colors of the lip that can be labeled as ‘abnormal’. Blue lips for example are abnormal and need to be attended to because it may be a sign of insufficient oxygen or blood flow. It can be a sign of serious conditions that may lead to death if left untreated. Darker brown lips that is uncharacteristic for a person as is black lips also need to be investigated as it may be due to medical factors. However, a range of lifestyle factor can also contribute to abnormality in lip color.

Causes of Blue, Brown and Black Lips

Lip color is primarily determined by the presence of melanin, or the lack of it. Melanin is a brown pigment produced by melanocytes in the skin. The amount of melanin varies due to genetic and environmental factors. Less melanin gives skin a paler look and due to the underlying blood flow the thin skin on the lips may have a redder appearance. More melanin masks this underlying blood flow and the lips have a browner appearance. Sometimes the color of blood may change from red to a darker red or blue, or the melanin deposition may increase giving the lips a brown to black appearance. These changes are more likely to occur in the following conditions.

Dry Lips

Dryness of the lips can cause it to look paler or even whiter temporarily but repeated dryness can lead to darkening of the lips over time. It is further exacerbated by trauma like in people who may bite the skin on the dry lips. Drying is often a consequence of environmental factors like wind or cold but can also occur with people who are mouth breathers and in tobacco smokers. Sometimes dryness of the lips may be due to dehydration and this dryness is apparent on the surface of the eyes and skin elsewhere on the body as well.


The skin on the lips are as prone to sunburn if not more so than skin elsewhere on the body. Without proper lip protection, the skin will burn quickly in strong sunlight or even with UV light. Eventually the burn will lead to darkening of the skin in much the same way as tanning does. Melanin protects the underlying delicate tissue from the effects of UV light and more melanin is deposited with recurrent sun exposure, especially repeated sunburns.

Skin Disease

A range of skin diseases that can affect skin anywhere on the body may also involve the lips. Skin conditions that are more likely to occur on the face may extend to the lips. Contact dermatitis is one of the common skin conditions that arise when the skin makes contact with substances that either irritate it or trigger allergic reactions. Eventually the skin can turn dark brown to black in color if the inflammation is persistent or scarring of the skin occurs as a result of these skin diseases.


Certain drugs have been found to cause darkening of the lips as a side effect. This darkening occurs when the melanocytes produce excess skin pigments. Therefore the darkening is referred to as hyperpigmentation. Among these drugs are antibiotics like tetracycline, certain cancer drugs (chemotherapy), acne medication like isotretinoin, certain psychiatric drugs like tricyclic antidepressants and antimalarial drugs. It is not a common side effect and prescription medication should never be stopped due to darkening of the lips unless advised by a doctor.

Topical Applications

The lips are a prominent feature for aesthetic modification in terms of using lipstick or lip liner. However, over time these substances can cause darkening of the lips particularly if the applications used are of low quality. Lip makeup should not be used daily if there is darkening of the lips or the brand of product should be changed. Skin lighteners that may make contact with the lips can also eventually cause the reverse of what it was intended for by leading to darkening of the lips.


Paleness and bluish tinge of the skin is a common feature in anemia, which is worsened during cold spells. This often occurs on the fingertips, toes and lips. There are a number of different types of anemia but the main problem is that there is insufficient red blood cells or red blood cells with a lower oxygen-carrying capacity circulating in the blood. Iron-deficiency anemia is a common problem among younger females due to regular blood loss in menses.


The red color of blood is associated with hemoglobin and the presence of oxygen. However, in cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and blood loss the oxygen distribution within the body is impaired. The lips may therefore turn blue and can be the sign of impending death if medical treatment is not forthcoming.

Other causes

  • Repeated vomiting as is seen with certain eating disorders.
  • Nutritional deficiencies.
  • Toxins and poisoning.
  • Melasma
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol abuse

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