Small white bumps can appear on the lips for a variety of reasons. Most white lip bumps may pose no significant health risk, but some types can signal a potentially serious medical condition, including a precancerous or cancerous growth. Because white lip bumps can arise for different reasons, it is best to seek a medical diagnosis to determine whether treatment is needed and, if so, the best options for you.
Oil glands, or sebaceous glands, usually empty into a hair follicle. Fordyce spots are sebaceous glands not associated with a hair follicle. These spots appear as small, white or light yellow, slightly raised bumps. These painless bumps are typically about the size of pencil lead or smaller, and multiple spots are usually present. Fordyce spots frequently occur on the lips as well as on the genital skin and in the mouth. At least 80 percent of adults have Fordyce spots somewhere on their body. They typically pose no health threat, are not contagious and do not require treatment. Rarely, an exceptionally large Fordyce spot might require treatment for comfort or cosmetic purposes.
Closed comedones, commonly known as whiteheads, often develop along the lip borders -- particularly among people who frequently use lip balm or lip cosmetics. Smoking can also contribute to the development of closed comedones at the lip borders and elsewhere on the face. Whiteheads represent blocked hair follicles, in which dead skin cells and oil accumulate. These small bumps are usually painless and remain relatively stable in size. Typical treatment involves gentle cleansing twice daily and avoiding or limiting use of products that block the pores at the lip borders. An over-the-counter, topical acne medication might be useful. However, it's important to ensure such products do not get into the mouth.
Milia are tiny white cysts filled with keratin, a protein component of the skin, hair and nails. While milia are most commonly seen in infants and young children, they also occur in adults. They are most often appear around the eyes in adults, but may develop at the lip borders and elsewhere on the face and body. Milia are firm, superficial and painless, and are typically smaller around than pencil lead. Several milia are usually present. Chronic sun exposure and skin rejuvenation procedures -- such as chemical peels, dermabrasion and laser resurfacing -- might increase the risk for developing facial milia. Milia are harmless but can be easily removed for cosmetic purposes.
A single white bump on the lip raises concern for a skin growth or tumor. There are several possibilities to be considered. More common examples include:
-- precancerous growth, such as actinic keratosis
-- nonmelanoma skin cancer, especially squamous cell carcinoma
-- fibroma, a noncancerous connective tissue tumor
-- mucocele, a noncancerous salivary tumor on the inside of the lower lip
Smoking, heavy alcohol use and sun damage increase the risk for precancerous and cancer lip growths. They might appear white, pink or red, typically feel firm, grow over time, and often evolve into open sores.
Next Steps and Precautions
While many causes of small, white lip bumps pose no threat to your health, it's best to see your doctor to rule out potentially serious causes. This is particularly important if the bumps become inflamed, appear to be growing or are accompanied by other signs or symptoms, including:
-- itchiness, tingling or tenderness
-- fever, chills or a general sense of feeling unwell
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.